Amid child porn scandal, Vatican backs push for child safety online

Amid child porn scandal, Vatican backs push for child safety online

Amid child porn scandal, Vatican backs push for child safety online

An Oct. 3-6 summit at Rome's Jesuit-run Gregorian University, backed by several Vatican departments, focuses on child safety online. (Credit: Stock image.)

As the Vatican deals with criticism of its handling of the case of a papal diplomat recalled to Rome from Washington facing allegations of child pornography use both in the U.S. and Canada, it's backing a major summit at Rome's Jesuit-run Gregorian University this week designed to tackle the growing problem of child vulnerability in an internet age.

ROME – On the heels of its own child pornography scandal involving the computer of a papal diplomat, the Vatican is lining up behind a major summit this week at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University devoted to the broader theme of keeping children safe in an internet-saturated age.

Titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” the Oct. 3-6 conference brings together leading experts on child protection, law enforcement officials, executives of Internet and social media companies, NGOs, and others, to discuss how to promote child welfare online.

The idea is for those various players to hammer out a plan of action, which will be presented to Pope Francis on Friday when conference participants meet him in an audience.

“We believe this will be a truly special and unique week, a week when the world wakes up to the reality and the problem of a life lived behind screens,” said Baroness Joanna Shields of the U.K., the founder of WePROTECT, a global alliance led by the UK government and supported by over 70 countries, 20 technology companies and NGOs to stop the global crime of online child sexual abuse and exploitation.

“We have to look at the emerging challenges, the emerging darkness, that’s out there,” Shields said. “Technology has no boundaries, and evil has the same access as good. The generation growing up in front of screens must be protected.”

Shields spoke at a press conference at the Gregorian University on Monday to introduce the conference.

Ernesto Caffo, the scientific director of the event and the founder of an anti-child abuse hotline in Italy called “Telefono Azzuro,” said the experts who will speak at the summit include a Harvard epidemiologist, the number two official of the international law enforcement agency Interpol, the world’s leading child abuse researcher, and the director of public safety at Facebook.

According to organizers, children and adolescents make up over a quarter of the more than 3.2 billion Internet users worldwide. This generation of over 800 million young users is in danger of becoming victims of sextortion, sexting, cyberbullying and harassment.

The event comes as the Vatican is facing mounting pressure over the case of a diplomat at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C. who was recalled to Rome in late August after American authorities flagged him as a possible target in a child pornography investigation.

Since that time, Canadian authorities have also issued an arrest warrant for Monsignor Carlo Capella, on charges of “access(ing) child pornography, possess(ing) child pornography and distribut(ing) child pornography,” allegedly committed while Capella was visiting a place of worship in Windsor, Canada.

Over the weekend, America’s largest advocacy group for survivors of clerical sexual abuse, SNAP, issued a statement noting that Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and effectively the number two official after Francis, will be giving a keynote address at the Gregorian summit, which bills itself as an “historic opportunity.”

“The first historic opportunity,” the SNAP statement said, “would be to turn Monsignor Capella and his computer over to civil authorities and for Pope Francis to keep his simple promises of transparency.”

Asked about the coincidence that the conference is unfolding at the same time as the Capella case, German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner of the Gregorian’s Centre for Child Protection, one of the conference organizers, said there’s no question of the Church’s anti-abuse commitment.

“Since Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has committed to the safeguarding of minors,” Zollner said. “Many measures have been adopted, and legislation has changed.

“I personally can witness that in travelling to 50 countries [on behalf of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a body created by Francis to advise him on the anti-abuse effort], this topic is picking up in all parts of the world – not with the same speed and consistency, but we are making progress,” he said.

“The pope, whom we met 10 days ago, made it very clear that the commission will continue, its remit will be very focused,” he said.

“The Centre for Child Protection is giving voice to the commitment of the Catholic Church on this,” Zollner said, who added that major Vatican departments are supporting the conference.

Zollner also defended the Vatican’s handling of the Capella case to date.

“The Holy See is in contact with U.S. authorities, and I’m pretty well convinced this follows the normal way of diplomatic and inter-state relationships, what the U.S. or others would do in the same case,” he said.

Zollner also said that if the charges are substantiated, then consequences must ensue.

“If a person is found guilty, he needs to be punished, period,” he said.

Ernie Allen, an attorney who served as the President and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for 23 years until June 2012, and the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children until 2014, called the summit “historic.”

“We see this meeting as historic, more than just a conference, the beginning of true global leadership to tackle a problem that’s growing worse by the day,” he said.

“It’s an extraordinary example of seizing the moment and leading,” Allen said.

As an illustration of the problems the summit intends to address, organizers pointed to the “dark web,” meaning areas of the internet inaccessible by Google or other conventional search engines, and designed to ensure that users’ activity is anonymous.

Allen said that while child pornography sites are believed to represent just a small percentage of dark web content, it probably accounts for at least 80 percent of all dark web traffic.

“The Internet has provided a vehicle for people sexually interested in children to interact with others of like interests around the world,” he said, describing it as a challenge that “can’t be handled by one institution, one country, or one agency.”

Shields argued that despite the scale of the problem, experience suggests that progress is possible.

She pointed to the fact experts on child pornography met with executives of Google in the past to discuss how to make sure such material was no longer accessible to users, and, as a result, “with the open web, we don’t have the problem we did four or five years ago.”

Shields also pointed to the example of working with Microsoft officials to use “photo DNA” technology to weed pornographic and abusive images of minors out of the Internet.

“We’re building a solution as we share a problem with the industry in this partnership, by sitting down at a table and saying, this is something we need you to fix,” she said. “Technology is moving so quickly, morphing and changing, we really need all hands on this problem.”

In a recent Crux interview, Zollner said part of the point of the summit isn’t just to hear speeches, but to get experts from different fields talking to each other about what to do.

“The unique feature is that while we’ll listen to the best-informed people around the globe, we also want these people to be able to talk to each other and come up with something – not only as a declaration of intention to do something better, but also some concrete steps and proposals for governments, internet companies, all those who are responsible for what’s on-line and what can happen to young people and vulnerable adults,” he said.

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