Clergy Sexual Abuse: French Catholic Church's New Digital ID Strategy

In a bid to tackle sexual abuse that has rattled the institution for years, the Catholic Church in France issued new digital ID cards with scannable QR codes to members of the clergy to help identify priests who face charges of sexual abuse.

The French Bishop’s Conference (CBF) announced on May 10th that it would equip bishops, deacons, priests, and other Church members with digital identification cards that will provide background information on the holder. This ID is no bigger than a bank card, and they will certify whether a clergyman can perform a sermon or hear confessions.

Anyone can easily access information about a clergy member by scanning the QR code on the ID card; the ID identifies them based on color-coded categories. Green means a priest has no restrictions in place and can freely hold masses or hear confessions. Orange means some limits are in place (an example could be a young priest who was ordained recently and isn’t qualified to lead sermons or hear confessions yet). But if the QR code shows red, the priest was stripped of clerical status and could no longer hear confessions or host sermons.

This new move by the French Catholic Church comes as Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE) released a conclusive report in 2021 detailing the sexual abuse within the church.

It also came as victims condemned the shortcomings of the French Catholic Church and highlighted the issue of gyrovagues or priests who have been suspended from clergy duty but still perform masses and hear confessions, which is still common, according to Christine Pedotti, a French catechist and author who also runs the weekly Christian magazine, Christian Witness.

The idea of giving ID to clergy members is also not new. For decades, French Catholic priests, deacons, and bishops have always used " celebret " paper documents to certify their profession. But French bishops criticized the system for being “too easily falsifiable” and “complicated to update,” prompting them to go for a digital version.

However, Pedotti said that the new ID cards don’t allow churchgoers to track down clergy members but instead provide “priests or lay people in charge of a parish a tool to verify the legitimacy of each person.” She added that most Catholics don’t even know such documents existed, and they have little reason to demand an ID now.

Organizations representing victims of sexual abuse by French Catholic clergy are also not sold on the idea, with François Devaux, former President of The Liberated Word, describing the new ID system as “one of the Catholic Church’s top three most stupid ideas.

If we have to scan the QR codes of clergy members to reassure Catholics, it means the Church has hit a new low. It’s nothing more than a publicity stunt, and it shows the extent to which trust has been broken between the faithful and their hierarchy,” he added, reflecting how he was overwhelmed by the announcement.

The digital ID card is not mentioned in the 45 recommended measures provided by the 2021 CIASE report. The system also raises concerns regarding the infringement of the privacy of clergy members since the card contains sensitive information about the holder, which includes convictions of sexual abuse and other crimes.

But despite the opposition, the French Catholic Church said the new tool is just one of the many solutions they plan to adopt to combat sexual abuse within the institution, with the top priority being to train priests and support victims.

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