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Catholic group spent millions on data tracking gay priests, 'Washington Post' reports

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A conservative Catholic organization in Denver spent at least $4 million on data from dating and hookup apps to track priests. The Washington Post says the nonprofit paid for the data with donations from philanthropists and then shared the information it purchased with Catholic bishops. The Post's Michelle Boorstein broke this story with her colleague, Heather Kelly. And Michelle Boorstein is on the line. Good morning.

MICHELLE BOORSTEIN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should define a little more definitely what the group was looking for. Your headline in The Washington Post says "Catholic Group Spent Millions On App Data That Tracked Gay Priests." Why gay priests?

BOORSTEIN: Well, this is a group that's really prioritizing this kind of conservative view of Catholic life. So our reporting showed that their interest is really in this - you know, prioritizing priests who use these gay hookup apps. The huge data set that they have did include, in much smaller numbers, a variety of other apps, which included OkCupid, other gay apps, other straight apps and that kind of thing. But the vast majority of their data was focused on Grindr, which is an app that gay men use.

INSKEEP: I guess we should remind people, according to the rules of the Catholic Church, priests are not supposed to marry. They're supposed to remain celibate. And I guess if you're concerned about that, you can go poking around and find out if people are following that rule. But you're saying, it seems, from the data you have, their specific concern was not people engaging in sexual activity as people who were gay. You also say you have an audio recording of the group president discussing its mission. How did they define what they were doing?

BOORSTEIN: Well, they talked about this heavy concern about celibacy. And there's been - especially in the last few years in the Catholic Church, there's been a concern about bishops and people at the top not sharing information and not holding each other accountable and that kind of thing. So this is kind of reflecting this trend in the Catholic Church where laypeople are really saying, look; we can't trust the bishops to take control of things, to clean things up, whether that's the clergy sex abuse issue - which this group does connect to gay priests in particular - or just celibacy and traditional values. So we need to kind of take the reins ourselves and police this issue.

INSKEEP: As best you can tell, what have the bishops done with the information they were given?

BOORSTEIN: Well, you know, we don't have all the information about what went on everywhere, but we know that bishops who received this information had kind of complicated feelings about it. They didn't want their priests to know that they were doing this. So in some cases, we believe that there were priests who were approached in some kind of unclear manner, which is - you know, they weren't clear about where they got the information. They just said, you know, we understand that you're using these apps, or we - you know, we have some concerns about your behavior or something like that. They were torn about it 'cause some people in the project wanted to just out priests, which is what happened two years ago to a priest in Wisconsin who was - who we believe was found through this data. But I think in general, they were trying to keep the fact that they were doing this project secret. And so people who are affected by it don't realize that this is what was behind comments from their bishops.

INSKEEP: Can I just, in the few seconds we have, clarify something here? There have been horrifying sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church going back decades, obviously, but was this group in some way conflating simply being gay with being a pedophile?

BOORSTEIN: I think - yeah, I think that they do believe some aspect of that. I mean, the data showed through this particular period of the sex abuse crisis, you know, recent, you know, decades, starting in, like, the, you know, '50s, '60s, that the majority of victims were male. But that's a very complicated issue.

INSKEEP: To say the least. We've got to stop it there, I'm sad to say. Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post. Thanks so much for your insights.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "SUSPENDED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.