ROME – No culture or religion is immune to sexual abuse of children, it’s a crime that’s prevalent in every society, it’s a public health problem of serious dimensions affecting one in every five girls and one in every 12 boys around the world, participants in a major child safety summit at Rome’s Gregorian University heard on Wednesday.

The first morning of the Oct. 3-6 congress titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World”was largely dedicated to statistics. Despite differences in backgrounds, there were several things experts from various fields seemed to agree on: There’s not enough information on just how widespread the problem is, and policy changes with a coordinated interdisciplinary international effort are needed to guarantee the protection of children.

“It’s difficult to fully access the number of children who are victims,” Dr. Dorothy Rozga, the executive director of ECPAT International said. Despite much progress at many levels, there’s no agreed upon international indicators of abuse.

“We need the data,” she said.

ECPAT is a non-governmental organization and a global network dedicated to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Rozga spoke from the perspective of a global NGO representing civil society, which she said has been at the forefront in the fight against sexual abuse of children for over 20 years. Governments, she said, only caught up in 2012, with the creation of a UK-based global alliance called WePROTECT, combining efforts of governments, international safety forces, the private sector and NGOs.

The alliance is today one of the three main organizers of the international conference taking place in Rome, the others being the Gregorian’s Centre for Child Protection (CCP) and “Telefono Azzurro,” the first Italian helpline for children at risk.

Speakers at the first session also included American Professor Michelle Anne Williams, from Harvard University, who spoke on the Epidemiology of Child Maltreatment; Dr. Janis Wolak, also American, and a professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, who gave an overview of the problem; Australian Tim Morris, Executive Director for Police Services at Interpol who gave a global law enforcement perspective; and Rozga who is also American.

Statistics and impact of child sexual abuse

Globally, violence is the eighth-leading cause of death among children, Williams said, though the rates vary by social class, both across and within countries. The statistics of non-fatal child maltreatment, however, are worse. One in three children, she said, are victims of emotional abuse. One in four experience physical abuse. One in five girls is sexually abused before she reaches the age of 18, and one in 12 boys.

About 80 percent of the children who are sexually abused, both online and offline, are attacked by people within their circle of trust, Rozga said. In an estimated 35 percent of the cases, it’s one of the child’s parents committing the abuse.

“To effectively respond to the crisis at scale, we need to reach to those in the circle of trust of the child: homes, families, education institutions and communities,” she said.

Morris, from Interpol Australia, spoke about the proliferation of images in what is known as the “dark net,” which is difficult to police, and which is rife with child abuse activity. He noted that on these sites, the use of crypto-currencies to acquire child abuse material is rising, and that the demand for new material is “disconcerting.”

The age of victims, he said, without giving specific percentages, is quite young. Frequently, Morris added, they’re under eight, and even babies are sexually abused on videos transmitted live.

The physical consequences of sexual abuse, Williams said, range from abdominal injuries to lacerations, burns, gynecological disorders including premature ovarian failure, chronic pain syndrome, sexually transmitted diseases and even permanent disabilities. Mental and behavioral consequences include eating and sleep disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, particularly post-stress disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder, suicidal behavior and unsafe sex.

The online threats for children are many, including sexting, sextortion, grooming, and live distant child abuse on the web. Wolak, from the New Hampshire research center, said that their findings indicate that the Internet did not create new types of abuse and exploitation, but it does facilitate “long standing aspects of certain types of these crimes.”

Grooming and seduction, instead of violence, have been used by abusers for a long time, with offenders building a relationship with the victims. This, she insisted, is not new, they’re simply using the currently available communication forms to interact with their victims.

The same can be said about the use of photography. The Internet, Wolak argued, had a big impact in the proliferation and distribution of images showing child pornography, but as a method, it’s been used since photography was invented.

Society as a whole needs to get involved

Morris began his presentation by saying that no culture and no religion is immune from the sexual abuse of children or from online offending, and that according to their data, there’s no correlation with ethnicity, education, social and economic status.

Though there is a correlation with the sexes: men are the majority offenders, and women are the majority of victims.

“How prepared is law enforcement? ‘Kind of’ is the answer,” Morris acknowledged, saying that “law enforcement has ‘good people’ technology, which allows for quicker identification of offending material, and the increase in data leads to more victims and offenders being identified.”

Despite their efforts, however, images and videos showing child sexual exploitation continue to grow online, and this has been the case for the past five years. Last year, he said, saw a 48 percent increase from the year before. For Interpol and other agencies, it’s important to work with the technical industry, such as Facebook.

Representatives from the Internet giant, as well as Google and Microsoft, are among those attending the conference. “The workload is massive for law enforcement,” Morris said, urging for an increased efficiency in information sharing.

“We are not prepared, not totally,” he insisted. “Law enforcement lacks the resources to respond to the endless amounts of offending material in distribution. We have to focus on the worst offenders and the most offensive material.

“Law enforcement is empowered with a unique mandate to tackle online crimes against children, but meaningful change requires involvement of all actors in society,” Morris insisted.

According to Dr. Elizabeth J. Letourneau, an American expert from John Hopkins University, one of these actors is the Catholic Church.

Her presentation was on the need to prevent online offending, saying that the time has come to “stop grasping at straws,” and that focusing all the efforts on detecting and punishing is simply not enough. The United States government, she said, can spend up to a million dollars punishing a sex offender, with policies that do little to make society safer.

“Congressmen and women have told me that it would be better to prevent child sexual abuse, that it would be more humane and more cost effective than intervening after the fact, but they just don’t have the funds,” she said.

It’s easy to say that there’s no money, Letourneau continued, if there’s no trust in the effectiveness of prevention. But for a government not to invest money in it, would be like spending funds treating polio, but not in vaccines that can prevent the decease.

“Convincing government policy makers that child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable, is a fundamental first step to move beyond grasping at straws,” she said.

And here’s where the Church comes in: “I believe the Church can use its extraordinary powers to convene, on display here today, and its extraordinary power to persuade, to convince governments that child sexual abuse is a preventable public health problem, and to demand that governments invest in prevention science for child sexual abuse as they already do for other forms of child maltreatment and childhood illnesses.”

On Friday, at the end of the conference, participants will be received by Pope Francis, and they will present him with a plan of action. Such an appeal, for the Church to become even more involved in its advocacy for the protection of children worldwide, is not far-fetched.