By Aude MAZOUE
Rattled by repeated cases of sexual abuse over the years, the French Catholic Church will soon provide digital ID cards with scannable QR codes that will offer colour-coded background information – ranging from green to orange to red – on bishops, priests and deacons. But the new measure is raising eyebrows.
Old sins cast long shadows. After centuries of secrecy, the French Bishop’s Conference (CEF) has decided it will be more transparent by equipping priests, bishops and deacons with digital, scannable identification cards. No bigger than a bankcard, the IDs will certify whether or not its holder is fit to perform a sermon or has the right to hear confession.
Essentially, the cards identify whether or not the Church member is facing a sexual abuse charge.
When the announcement dropped on Wednesday 10 May, it sparked a mini revolution within the French Catholic Church. The bishop of Troyes, a town in eastern France, called it a “cultural shift”.
« Confrontée à des affaires de violences sexuelles, l’Église de France numérise d’ici la fin de l’année les documents d’identité professionnelle des évêques, des prêtres et des diacres, pour les empêcher de célébrer en cas de sanction. » https://t.co/Jyh6kkPNm2 — Agir pour notre Église (@AgirNotreEglise) May 10, 2023
“Faced with cases of sexual violence, the Church of France is digitising the professional identity documents of bishops, priests and deacons by the end of the year, to prevent them from celebrating in case of sanction.”
By simply scanning a QR code on these IDs, anyone can access colour-coded information on a clergy member. Green means there are no restrictions on them leading a mass or hearing confession. Orange indicates that some restrictions are in place, but not necessarily that the clergy member is an abuser (for example, a young priest may have been recently ordained and is not yet qualified to lead mass or confession). Red is reserved for someone who can no longer preach or practice, or that they have been stripped of clerical status – but the nature of the sanction isn’t specified.
An outdated paper version
An ID card for bishops, priests and deacons isn’t an entirely new idea. French Catholic Church clergy have always had what’s called a “celebret”, a paper document certifying their profession. But French bishops deemed the system “too easily falsifiable … and complicated to update”, so have now opted for a digital version.
French bishops first decided to use the new cards during a 2021 conference following a damning report published by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Ciase). “It seemed essential to see what we could change … to make the Church safer” in terms of sexual abuse, explained Alexandre Joly, a Troyes bishop and conference spokesperson, at a press briefing.
The measure also aims to “respect victims who can’t understand, and rightfully so, why someone who has committed serious acts can … continue to perform mass or confess”.
Christine Pedotti, who runs the Christian weekly magazine “Témoignage Chrétien” (Christian Witness), said the paper IDs “had always been used by priests while travelling, for example, to prove to another priest that they were authorised to co-lead a mass”.
“Today’s updated digital version is more modern and has a new feature that allows someone to check whether the priest has been suspended. It’s a good idea given the current context, and should prove quite useful,” she said.
Associations for victims of abuse have repeatedly condemned the French Catholic Church’s shortcomings. “Priests known as ‘gyrovagues’ – as in, suspended from their duties but who continue to present themselves as priests in religious communities – are quite common,” Pedotti noted.
The most striking example is the case of the Philippe brothers. Marie-Dominique Philippe, condemned in 1957 by the Vatican for complicity in sexual assaults, and his brother Thomas, were both able to found or co-found several religious communities and associations without a worry because the charge against Marie-Dominique had been forgotten.
“Today, bishops are expected to manage several hundred priests without really having any way of controlling them,” Pedotti said. “But the term ‘episcopal’, which comes from the Greek ‘episcopos’, means ‘guardian’ or ‘overseer’. It’s about time they were equipped with modern tools to ensure they can fulfill their responsibilities.”
One of the Church’s ‘top three most stupid ideas’
The new ID cards are not aimed at allowing churchgoers to track down clergy members, but to give “priests or laypeople in charge of a parish a tool to verify the legitimacy of each person”, Pedotti said. “The vast majority of Catholics were previously unaware that paper ID cards existed in the first place. There is little reason for them to ask for ID now.”
Organisations who represent victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church aren’t necessarily convinced.
“It’s quite an exceptional measure which, in my opinion, is one of the Catholic Church’s top three most stupid ideas,” said François Devaux, former president of La Parole Libérée (The Liberated Word), an organisation created in 2015 by victims of former Catholic priest and paedophile Bernard Preynat.
“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,” continued Devaux, who was overwhelmed by the announcement.
“This new ineptitude is a sign of the Church’s idleness. It has not understood the criticism it has faced, nor does it want to. In any case, the initiative is a far cry from the measures that were recommended in the Ciase report,” he concluded.
‘It’s just not enough’
Among the 45 recommended measures in the Ciase report, published on 5 October 2021, there is no mention of a digital ID card.
“I agree with François Devaux that this measure doesn’t address the demands made by the commission. It’s a small tool that, when compared to the scale of the problem, just isn’t enough,” said Pedotti.
“The report focuses on giving more power to laypeople, on redistributing power. On matters [of sexual abuse], the French Catholic Church has not provided a solution and did not answer this fundamental question: Why do some priests think they are Gods, to the point of thinking they can avail themselves of other people’s bodies?”
The card’s new high-tech functions also raise ethical questions. An ID card that can include information about a person’s infractions, whether a conviction for sexual abuse or other crimes, has stirred debate on social media platforms, with many seeing it as a dangerous slippery slope toward infringement of privacy.
One of many solutions
Despite the backlash, the French Catholic Church says the new tool is just one of many solutions aimed at combating sexual abuse, “to ensure that we are now in a culture of transparency and treating others well”, said Matthieu Rougé, the bishop of Nanterre, in an interview with RMC radio channel on Thursday.
“The top priority is still to support victims and to train priests.”
The French Bishop’s Conference has promised that all 18,000 priests and deacons across the country will receive their QR codes by the end of the year. Bishops have already received them.
Every diocese and religious congregation will update data concerning its bishops, priests and deacons annually. If a clergy member is subject to canonical sanction, the digital update will be immediate.
The French Catholic Church is making progress, Pedotti said, because it’s “encouraging more and more people to speak out”.
“Cases of sexual abuse still come up, but now they are being reported. The impunity they had before is changing in France. The same can’t be said of Italy or Poland, for example.”
And yet, “There is still so much to be done, both in France and around the world,” she said.
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