No ‘right to erase’ baptism records for Church defectors – DPC

No ‘right to erase’ baptism records for Church defectors – DPC

Those who leave the Church have “no right to obtain erasure” of their Baptism records, the Data Protection Commission has ruled in a case of major significance across Europe.

At a time when churches are facing legal challenges under GDPR to erase the Baptism records of people who ‘defect’ – technical language for those who leave the Church – the DPC upheld Dublin diocese’s right to retain personal data kept in Baptism Registers.

This means “data subjects” who have left the Church “do not have the right to obtain erasure of their personal data in the Baptism Registers,” the DPC said in its judgement, made in February 2023, but released late last year.

The news comes as a relief to dioceses and parishes who have faced demands from defectors to alter registers, under General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) that came in 2018.

Such demands could “render impossible or seriously impair” the life of the Church, Archbishop Dermot Farrell argued in submissions to the DPC’s inquiry, as Baptism is the “gateway” to all other Sacraments.

Archbishop Farrell argued that, as a result, the diocese has “compelling legitimate grounds” to maintain baptismal registers regardless of the interests, rights and freedoms of the ‘data subject’.

The information is “stored confidentially” and poses “minimal” impacts to the life of those who leave the Church, he said.

The continued retention of Baptismal data is “essential” for the administration of the affairs of the Church, Archbishop Farrell said.

The commission’s inquiry upheld Archbishop Farrell’s arguments on grounds of legitimate interest, while recommending that “a supplementary statement could be added by the archbishop to the Baptism Register entry stating, ‘No longer wishes to be identified as a Roman Catholic’”.

Archbishop Farrell told the DPC that, although he believed that any such action would be unnecessary, it would be permissible for parishes to include such an addendum “as an alternative to erasure”.

The DPC’s judgement came after an inquiry into “numerous complaints” it received from people who left the Church and wanted records of their Baptism erased.

The DPC’s decision could have major implications for churches within EU countries, all of which are subject to GDPR.

The Church in Belgium is presently fighting an order to erase an entry in a baptismal register, amid a reported rise in “debaptism” requests.

A spokesman said that the Church had appealed a December 19 decision by Belgium’s Data Protection Authority requiring the Diocese of Ghent to comply with an unnamed person’s request to have the record of their baptism deleted.

The Church in Belgium cited the DPC’s February ruling in its case, with Geert De Kerpel, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels saying “We were very surprised by the decision, as the data protection authority in Ireland had reached the opposite decision only a few months ago in a complaint against the Archdiocese of Dublin.

“So we think there are enough arguments to defend our position in court,” he said.