Child safety leader sees not just Church's dark past, but game-changing future

Child safety leader sees not just Church’s dark past, but game-changing future

Child safety leader sees not just Church’s dark past, but game-changing future

Baroness Joanna Shields (Credit: www.joannashields.com.)

Baroness Joanna Shields, an American-born expert on internet safety and child protection who's now a member of the British House of Lords and a former UK Government Minister, says that when she looks at the Catholic Church and child welfare she doesn't just see a mixed past but a potentially game-changing future: "When the pope speaks, people listen," she said.

ROME – For Catholics who’ve lived through the carnage of the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals, put the words “Vatican” and “child safety” into a sentence, and inevitably, understandably, the mental associations are with where Catholicism has failed.

Someone like Baroness Joanna Shields, however, brings a fresh set of eyes. One of the world’s leading experts on child protection, she’s hardly unaware of the Church’s mixed record. However, when she looks at Catholicism today, what she sees isn’t so much the problem but a potentially key ingredient of the solution.

“When the pope speaks, people listen, especially young people,” Shields said. “I think a lot of young people are really into how he connects with them. His Ted Talk, for instance, I thought was extraordinary. He talked about technology, and how it would be great if technology empowered everyone equally.”

“Well, just adding to what he said and his wisdom, I think it’s equally important that technology protects everyone equally,” Shields said on Wednesday.

Shields, born in Pennsylvania but today a member of the British House of Lords and a former UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security, is the founder of the WePROTECT global alliance, led by the UK government and supported by over 70 countries, 30 technology companies, and NGOs to combat the global crime of online child sexual abuse and exploitation.

She spoke during an Oct. 3-6 summit at Rome’s Gregorian University titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” unfolding with the support of several Vatican departments, and building to an audience with Pope Francis on Friday.

The event is hosted by the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University, launched in 2012 in the aftermath of a European wave of clerical abuse scandals. It’s co-sponsored by “WePROTECT” and “Telefono Azzuro,” an Italian child abuse hotline that’s emerged as a leading advocate for child protection.

On other fronts, Shields said:

  • While the architects and gurus of the digital world tend to extol its virtues in terms of global connectivity and the democratization of conversation, “we’ve left it long” in terms of coming to grips with the dark side of what it means for an entire generation to be “living and experiencing life through a screen.”
  • The problem of child abuse and exploitation online is global, and therefore the response has to be global, encompassing a vast “coalition of the willing” representing a variety of different stakeholders: “How are you able to protect your citizens when the platforms they use transcend boundaries?” she said. “Many of the applications we use today connect billions, like WhatsApp. You can’t control or monitor those influences, so you have to work in coalition with companies, with law enforcement, sharing information.”
  • In that effort, faith groups have a specific role to play: “I think the fact that the Centre for Child Protection here at the Gregorian stepped forward and said, ‘We want to be first,’ is important. We invited a lot of other faith leaders to come to this event, and we hope to expand that. It’s not just Catholics who need to protect their kids. Every faith group has a role to play in ensuring that the moral development as well as the physical development of children is protected in this emerging digital world.”

The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Shields, which took place Oct. 4 at the Gregorian University.

Crux: What’s the aim of this summit?

Shields: This conference sort of represents a point on a journey. And the journey for me has been that, in technology, we’ve all been blinded by the light, the great promise of potential that technology innovation was going to give us free access to information and democratize the world and make us all understand each other better. Well, about the time, I guess it was mid-2000s, when I was running a social media site called Vivo, the cracks started beginning to show.

The first thing we saw were young people being groomed for sexual exploitation. We had young people committing suicide on the platform. We had tens of millions of kids on this platform and it suddenly became clear to me that they had this connection to another world, and in that world, there were influences that were beyond their control. There were people who were engaging with those influences, and sometimes to very terrible outcomes.

It’s been a journey of understanding the implications of the internet on children’s development, on their safety and welfare, the harms that are being committed against children on the internet, from sextortion to grooming for sexual exploitation to radicalization.

As a society, we tend to focus on the positives and we tend to think that these are fringe cases, that only happen every so often.

In other words, the internet is essentially a great thing, but we tend to minimize the situations in which it can be abused.

We do. The internet transcends borders. I work in the British government, but we can only control the physical space of the British Isles in terms of protecting people. So, how do you protect people in this brave new world of cyber space? How are you able to protect your citizens when the platforms they use transcend boundaries? Many of the applications we use today connect billions, like WhatsApp. You can’t control or monitor those influences, so you have to work in coalition with companies, with law enforcement, sharing information.

In 2014, David Cameron, and then President Barack Obama, set up a task force to look at the issue of child sexual exploitation online and they really opened an entire Pandora’s box on what really needed to be done.

Cameron asked me to run the technology side of this, to interact with the technology companies to get a better, more organized response to some of these problems, and to explain what we were seeing, what law enforcement was seeing, so that they could go back to find better solutions, because they have the best and brightest minds, obviously.

And I think, in many ways, they have good intentions. I know these people, I worked in their companies, and in their hearts, they really are web utopians, they actually believe in the positive potential. And in most cases, they’re correct, but these cracks started to show. So, I worked in this task force, and it became clear to me that we needed a multi stakeholder international organization that would bring together all the people who have in some way the responsibility for protecting children online and we would all become jointly responsible for ensuring a safer environment for young people online.

I founded an organization called WePROTECT. And we have over 70 governments, now, 30 technology companies, I don’t know how many NGOs, as many as there are on the field, and I’m picking more up here.

What the congress, what this week was about is the fact that we need the evidence in order to make decisions, we need to be able to tell companies ‘x number of children are being affected by this in all these different countries.’ We need to be able to present strong evidence of how it’s affecting the physiology of the development of their brains, exposure to pornography, what does it all mean?

There are a lot of really willing people here, it’s a coalition of the willing, who want to advance the cause of research in this area to ensure that we’re making good policy decisions as governments, that NGOs know how to support and look after victims post-trauma that happens online, and so on.

It’s about bringing this coalition of the willing together to understand and hear the research that’s being presented first-hand, and then create a community that can continue after the congress to ensure that this research is brought to the Centre for Child Protection.

Some may wonder what the Catholic Church has to contribute to this, and why this event is happening at a Jesuit-run university in Rome. Can you explain how you see it?

I think all faith groups need to be involved in the protection of children. I think the fact that the Centre for Child Protection here at the Gregorian stepped forward and said, ‘We want to be first,’ is important. We invited a lot of other faith leaders to come to this event, and we hope to expand that. It’s not just Catholics who need to protect their kids. Every faith group has a role to play in ensuring that the moral development as well as the physical development of children is protected in this emerging digital world.

Many of us who are here covering this conference principally focus on the Vatican, so when we think “Vatican” and “child abuse,” normally we’re thinking about cases when something broke down or went wrong. However, the sense one gets at this conference is that the focus isn’t on past failures but future contributions, and you seem to feel the Church has an enormously positive role to play in addressing this problem.

Absolutely. You talk about when things break down … well, the internet breaks down a lot on behalf of our children. If you just look at the endless cases and the trauma kids are suffering, it’s incredible. I think this event is a recognition [by the Church] that the internet is not only this vast empowering force that gives kids access to all this learning and information and creativity, it’s also creating an entirely new set of problems that we have to deal with as a society.

I don’t mean to be fear-mongering here, but we’ve got some very serious developments that are impacting young people. One of the participants here said that the internet is the greatest social experiment in history. Think about that for a second. Kids, this generation that’s growing up connected to these devices, literally sleeping with that phone under their pillow, because that’s what they do ….

Are you saying kids today are the guinea pigs in this great social experiment?

That’s what we have to avoid. We have to go into this with our eyes wide open, and my argument is that we’ve left it long. We were all caught up in the rhetoric of this utopian digital world, where we’re all connected and doing great things together, but realistically there are a lot of problems that have been showing up for a long time.

As a society, all of us, we have to do something about it. I think the fact that the Gregorian University is key, that we’re doing this here in Rome, shows that the Church also cares about this and wants to be in the forefront of helping to solve the problem.

Do you think there’s a specific contribution that religious actors can make that perhaps law enforcement, or researchers, or governments can’t? Is there a moral or spiritual dimension to the problem they can help address?

There’s some studies recently about young people showing that everything about them is changing. We call them the ‘i-Generation,’ or the ‘i-Phone Generation.’ Everything about them is changing. They’re staying in their rooms, they hardly go out. They’re delaying all kinds of things. They don’t date as much or as early as we did, for instance. There are all these behavioral changes, and what does all that mean? They’re in a solitary relationship with some virtual world through a device. They’re living and experiencing life through a screen. We have no idea what that means, and I’m really happy we’re here to have this conversation.

What matters, however, is what we do after the conversation. We’ve left it late, but we can do something about this.

You all are supposed to present a document to Pope Francis on Friday, looking for his moral leadership on the issue. Can you talk a little about what you hope that plan of action might contain?

We want to present a declaration, if you will, about the rights of children that need to be protected, looking out for their safety and welfare, and that we as a global community across all these stakeholders are committed to doing this. We want to present that to the Holy Father, so that he can endorse and support it.

When the pope speaks, people listen, especially young people. I’m not that young, but I think a lot of young people are really into how he connects with them. His Ted Talk, for instance, I thought was extraordinary. He talked about technology, and how it would be great if technology empowered everyone equally.

Well, just adding to what he said and his wisdom, I think it’s equally important that technology protects everyone equally.

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