ROME – Addressing a group of experts gathered in Rome, including representatives of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, Pope Francis’s right-hand man said on Tuesday that the Church’s tragic experience with the sexual abuse of children, “this reality [that] has come powerfully to the fore in the Catholic Church,” allows it to help lead the fight in other arenas.
“In this venue, [the Catholic Church] want[s] to share the experience we have acquired, so that it may prove useful for an ever greater good, thanks to collaboration with all of you,” Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin said.
Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was one of two keynote speakers at a conference titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” being held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University Oct. 3-6. It’s organized by the university’s Centre for Child Protection (CCP), a UK-based global alliance called WePROTECT, and “Telefono Azzurro,” the first Italian helpline for children at risk.
“We recognize the challenges, but also realize that even though we have learned a great deal with respect to this phenomenon, it remains important to understand it ever better, and, more than anything, to continue to make our understanding of the phenomenon accessible to all those who promote the protection of the rights of minors,” he said.
“Only in this way can we effectively fight the battle to protect minors in our digitalized world,” Parolin told the gathering. “The phenomena we observe reach levels of shocking gravity; their dimensions and the speed with which they spread surpass our imagination.”
Addressing the attendees, the majority of whom have long years of experience in the field of fighting sexual abuse of minors, Parolin acknowledged the fact that this is a “vast and widespread” phenomenon.
“Over the past few decades, this tragic reality has come powerfully to the fore in the Catholic Church and extremely grave facts have emerged,” he said. “The Church has become increasingly aware of the harm experienced by the victims, of their suffering and of the need to listen to them, in order to work on various fronts.”
For the fight against sexual abuse of minors to be fruitful, he said, it requires deep human care, competence, and tenacity, as well as being consistent and continuous.
The Church’s effort in this regard, he said, “even when society in general has not yet developed the necessary awareness, must continue, must be expanded and deepened, with clarity and firmness, so that the dignity and rights of minors may be protected and defended with much greater attentiveness and effectiveness than was done in the past.”
Speaking about the widespread use of technology around the world, Parolin said that this availability has made the scourge of offences against the dignity of minors spread and align itself within the new parameters of the digital world. This means that they are exposed to old risks manifested in new ways, he said.
This makes the challenge even greater, because it means the “culture of the protection of minors that we want to spread must be sufficiently able to address today’s problems.”
Violence and abuse against minors “proliferate in an interwoven manner,” Parolin said, listing several such instances, such as traffic of minors, prostitution, children used as soldiers, the absence of education, and children being the first victims of hunger and poverty.
“The horrendous reality of sexual abuse,” he said, “is nearly always present, as a common aspect and consequence of multifaceted and widespread violence that ignores all respect, not only for the body, but more so for the soul.”
At the end of the conference, participants coming from countries across the world, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are expected to present an action plan to Pope Francis.
Parolin applauded the diversity among participants, a factor which aims to establish a dialogue among those who have made the cause of defending minors in the digital world their own. It’s necessary to regain control of the development of the digital world, the cardinal said, so that it serves the dignity of children, and the future of the human race.
He noted that across the world there are children from developing countries who have access to the digital world, while living in a context that’s largely undeveloped. In this reality, Parolin said, their parents and teachers might not have the tools to accompany these children as they grow.
The congress taking place in Rome, he said, also has a responsibility to these children, as do the companies that drive the development of the digital world.
It’s “not by chance” that these children, at the world’s “peripheries,” as Francis often calls them, are the preferred target of networks of exploitation, both in developing countries but also in wealthy societies where “there is considerable human and spiritual poverty, loneliness and a loss of the meaning of life.”
The life of every child, Parolin said towards the end of his remarks, is “supremely important” and precious both to other people and in the sight of God, as every person was created in His “image and likeness.”
“To disparage infancy and to abuse children is for the Christian, therefore, not only a crime, but also – as Pope Francis has stated – sacrilege, a profanation of that which is sacred, of the presence of God in every human being,” he said.
Ernesto Caffo, founder of Telefono Azzuro, listed several online threats against children including sexting, sextortion, grooming, and live distant child abuse on the web. According to the expert, the children most at risk are those who have some form of disability, poor children, migrants, and refugees.
Several statistics were given by the speakers in the opening session, including the fact that in Europe alone, there are 34,000 webpages that show children being sexually abused, or the fact that according to Interpol, in 2016, at least five children a day fell victim to online sexual abuse. In 2013 alone, according to several of the experts, 18 million children were sexually abused, representing 30 percent of the continent’s children.
Caffo spoke of several studies that have found rates of sexual abuse in childhood ranging from 7 to 36 percent for girls and 3 to 29 percent for boys.
Despite the numbers, however, according to Caffo it’s difficult to correctly estimate the prevalence of child abuse and exploitation, as its monitoring has always been affected by the percentage of unreported cases, and probably does not reflect the real extent of the phenomenon.
Toxic childhood experiences, Caffo said, “significantly shape the brain and have a huge influence on the future adult.”
The absence of proper positive supportive experience, he explained, leads to neuro-psychological changes and dysfunctional coping mechanisms. In 23 percent of the cases, adult survivors require life-long psychological treatment.
Caffo closed his remarks appealing for actions to be taken at a global level: “What good is research if we do not translate findings into policies, actions and programs?”
The congress has been years in the making, says Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, head of the Gregorian’s CCP, who also serves as a member of Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors.
He was in charge of delivering the congress’s opening remarks, which came after a heartbreaking video showing several children who’ve suffered various forms of abuse, from a teenage girl who was being blackmailed by a man who convinced her to share nude pictures of herself with him, to a young boy holding a plush toy while being sexually abused.
“Stories such as these are why we are gathered here,” Zollner said. “We have listened to stories of victims, and now we are here to talk about hope….I have two conflicting emotions. A somber feeling corresponding to the topic of our discussion,” but also “a hopeful feeling” when looking at the faces of those present.
“How can we stop these terror attacks on the heart of the child?” he asked, adding that he has one conviction: “there is not one single medicine that will fix it all,” instead, “it is a combination of threads that weave this safety net … And the threads are people.”
The week-long congress includes a wide-range of speakers, from different backgrounds and disciplines, including scientists, software specialist, researchers, law enforcement officials, academic experts, leaders of civil society, government representatives, and religious representatives from around the world.