Conservative Catholic Group Spent $4 Million Seeking to Forcibly Out Gay Priests

A Washington Post report as revealed that a conservative Catholic group invested millions of dollars to potentially out gay priests based on their digital personal data.

The Post’s story earlier this month detailed efforts by Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal (CLCR), a nonprofit based in Colorado, to purchase data from dating app companies with the intent of identifying clergy using such apps. The report explained:

“The Post interviewed two people with firsthand knowledge of the project, heard an audio recording of [the group’s president Jayd] Henricks discussing it, and reviewed documents that were prepared for bishops as well as public records. . .Both [interviewees] disapprove of the project because they see it as spying and coercive in ways that are damaging to priest-bishop relations and to the reputation of the Catholic Church and thus its ability to evangelize. They also see the project as taking a simplistic approach to morality that they call un-Catholic. . .

“According to two separate reports prepared for bishops and reviewed by The Post, the group says it obtained data that spans 2018 through 2021 for multiple dating and hookup apps including Grindr, Scruff, Growlr and Jack’d, all used by gay men, as well as OkCupid, a major site for people of various sexualities. But most of the data appears to be from Grindr, and those familiar with the project said the organizers’ focus was gay priests.”

CLCR spent at least $4 million on the project, money which was used to purchase personal information through data brokers, a practice that is unregulated in the U.S. The group then “cross-referenced location data from the apps and other details with locations of church residences, workplaces and seminaries to find clergy who were allegedly active on the apps.” The audio recording from Jayd Henricks, CLCR’s president, claims the group contacted at least a dozen church leaders as a result of their efforts, though the outcomes of these communications are unclear.

According to The Post, “some of the men who are part of the Renewal project were also involved in the July 2021 outing of a prominent priest, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill,” who resigned as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general secretary after being outed. The trustees of CLCR, which was founded in 2019, are listed as Mark Bauman, John Martin, and Tim Reichert, each of whom has a record of funding right wing Catholic causes. CLCR’s president, Jayd Henricks, was once the USCCB’s top lobbyist. Additional funding for CLCR came from the Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado, a partner of the Archdiocese of Denver.

Several prominent Catholics were quick to condemn CLCR and its invasion of privacy, judging the effort as inconsistent with Catholic values. Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer, denied that a priest downloading a dating app violated the Sixth Commandment and church law, explaining:

“‘These aren’t new issues; the internet is just a new tool. There is a tension between these policies about sins involving the Sixth Commandment, and the fact that [the Church] has never defined that in law. It always shifts and is up to the opinions of moral theologians.”

Fr. Bryan Massingale, a gay priest and theologian, said CLCR’s work was “disturbing and reprehensible,” telling the National Catholic Reporter (NCR):

“‘They are scapegoating gay priests, and homosexuality in general, as the principal threats to the Catholic faith. . .But the reality is that there are many gay men who serve the church with dedication and fidelity. This group seeks to weaponize human weakness for the sake of an ideology. That is not the way of Jesus.'”

Michael Sean Winters, also writing in NCR, said CLCR’s work brought to mind the Salem witch trials and 1950’s McCarthyism. Referring to the “Denver Catholic mafia,” and suggesting Archbishop Samuel Aquila had knowledge of the effort, Winters concluded:

“Mr. Henricks: You and your ilk are a ‘witness against the ministry of the Church.’

Christus Dominus, the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, states:

“‘As those who lead others to perfection, bishops should be diligent in fostering holiness among their clerics, religious, and laity according to the special vocation of each. They should also be mindful of their obligation to give an example of holiness in charity, humility, and simplicity of life (Paragraph 15).’

“Does spying on priests provide an ‘example of holiness in charity, humility, and simplicity of life?’ That is not only a question for readers of this column. It is a question for the Dicastery for Clergy and the Dicastery for Bishops.

“The people involved in this effort to spy on priests are creeps. I would not deny them Communion, to be sure, but I have no hesitation in affirming that they are making the church they claim to love look creepy too.”

Revelations of CLCR’s data mining project to target gay priests have prompted not only responses from inside the Catholic Church, but from external observers interested in digital rights and privacy protections because of what this project could lead to in other arenas. Bennett Cyphers of the Electronic Frontier Foundation commented to The Post:

“‘It was the first needle-in-a-haystack case, where someone sifts through millions of locations in apps and looks for one person and then tries to use that info to impeach them. It was a character assassination of a private citizen for some kind of political reason based on information [the citizen] didn’t know they were being tracked on.'”

Right-wing Catholics have gone very far to shame and marginalize LGBTQ+ people in the past, and yet The Washington Post’s report is still painful, revealing a more insidious and prurient form of spying. It is unknown if any clergy were forcibly outed, forced to resign, or otherwise sanctioned because of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal’s efforts. Hopefully, the $4 million spent on this project yielded nothing against specific individuals. Such malicious behavior does, however, harm more broadly. Attempts to spy on and forcible out gay priests and religious reinforces homophobic aspects of a clerical culture that already deeply stigmatizes being gay.

Catholics, including church leaders who may be approached by CLCR, should firmly reject their efforts and the homophobia undergirding them. Instead, the people of God must become more visibly and vocally supportive of the gay priests and religious who so faithfully and fervently serve the church each day.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, March 20, 2023

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *