Friday 21 February 2020

Data Protection Commission to investigate Catholic registers

Ireland's Commissioner of Data Protection, Helen Dixon, published the DPC's Annual Report for 2019 yesterday. On page 48 there's a list of 'Ongoing Inquiries' including one regarding the Catholic Church and the personal data it holds in its registers of baptism and other rites.

On my first reading of that summary, alarm bells starting ringing. Could new restrictions be on the way for Irish genealogists?

Hopefully not. The reason for the investigation is really nothing to do with public access or the value of records for their genealogical information. As you can see below from the published summary of this case, it has been brought following complaints from a number of ex-Catholics that the Church will not delete records of their baptisms; they are looking for these records to be deleted because there is no formal way to leave the Church or renounce their religion.

I remember many, many years ago, feeling the same way. I was furious – well, a bit narked... I didn't care enough to pursue it with vigour – that the church was happy to perform a joining ritual without my consent as a baby but was not prepared to formally rubber-stamp a decision I chose to take as an adult. Where I don't agree with the current complainants is in expecting the baptism to be deleted from the records; the register is merely a log of the baptisms performed in a particular building or parish, and my baptism, like that of every other baby noted on the pages, was, if nothing else, a historical fact.

Not only that, but the integrity of these historical documents must be protected.

Here's the DPC's summary of the case:

So for now, the DPC looks likely to be examining Catholic records in the course of its investigation into whether the church is legally obliged to delete personal data of people seeking to leave Catholicism. This will hang on whether the records are maintained by systems that are regulated by data protection laws.

Let's hope they stick to that narrow remit, and don't start poking their noses where they're not wanted.

The Irish Times has also reported on this issue.