ROME—Pope Francis on Friday said the Catholic Church has come to acknowledge her failures in protecting children, and in light of that history, Catholics must accept their responsibility “before God, before the victims and before public opinion.”

“For this very reason, as a result of these painful experiences and the skills gained in the process of conversion and purification, the Church today feels especially bound to work strenuously and with foresight for the protection of minors and their dignity, not only within her own ranks, but in society as a whole and throughout the world,” Francis said on Friday.

The Church, the pope continued, is “clearly not enough” by itself to accomplish that, but by offering her cooperation to all those who are committed to the same goal, adhering to the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations to end “the abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children” by 2030.

Francis was addressing a group of some 150 top-level global leaders in the fight against sexual abuse and exploitation of children, who’ve gathered in Rome for a four-day global conference on keeping children safe online.

“We have to keep our eyes open, and not hide from an unpleasant truth that we would rather not see,” Francis said, in what’s arguably the longest speech he’s delivered on child safety since the beginning of his pontificate.

“Surely we have realized,” he said, that trying to conceal the reality of sexual abuse is “a grave error and the source of many other evils?”

The ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’ global conference, was held this week in Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and organized by its Centre for Child Protection, in partnership with WePROTECT, a UK-based global alliance, and “Telefono Azzurro,” the first Italian helpline for children at risk.

The Centre for Child Protection is run by Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a German priest who’s also a member of Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Speaking about the internet, the pope said that “we encounter extremely troubling things on the net,” including ever more extreme porn, sexting, bullying, sextortion, solicitation of minors for prostitution, trafficking in person, prostitution, and even “the commissioning and live viewing of acts of rape and violence against minors in other parts of the world.”

According to the experts who spoke at the conference, the proliferation of live streaming infants being raped is a growing source of online revenue.

Faced with these facts, Francis acknowledged, “we are naturally alarmed,” but “we must not let ourselves be overcome by fear, which is always a poor counsellor, nor let ourselves be paralyzed by the sense of powerlessness that overwhelms us before the difficulty of the task before us.”

Instead, the pope said, it’s necessary for the different actors to join forces to seek and find the right means for effective responses.

Among other things, the pope suggested three potential mistakes this international effort should avoid:

  • Underestimating the harm these phenomena do to children.
  • To think that there are ready-made solutions to fix the global crisis.
  • To avoid the “ideological and mythical vision of the net as a realm of unlimited freedom.”

The difficulties to counter the challenges can lead some to the temptation of reducing the danger, leading them to say, “Really, the situation is not so bad as all that…” Yet, as Francis noted, various sciences have brought to light the impact violent and sexual images have on children, the psychological problems that emerge as they grow older and the “genuine enslavement that result from a steady diet of provocative or violent images.”

He also warned against underestimating the impact these images have on adults, particularly the “ever more extreme pornography,” which not only causes “disorders, dependencies and grave harm among adults, but also has a real impact on the way we view love and relations between the sexes.”

“We would be seriously deluding ourselves were we to think that a society where an abnormal consumption of internet sex is rampant among adults, could be capable of effectively protecting minors,” the pope said.

It would also be a mistake to approach the issue thinking that there are automatic solutions, such as filters, that are sufficient to deal with these problems. They are necessary, but there’s “an urgent need” to address the “ethical concerns” that the growing consumption of abusive and harmful images create.

The third potentially mistaken approach, Francis said, consists of an “ideological and mythical vision of the net as a realm of unlimited freedom.” Because even though the net “has opened a vast new forum for free expression and the exchange of ideas and information” which is beneficial, it’s also offered new means for “heinous illicit activities,” including the abuse of minors and offences against their dignity.

“This has nothing to do with the exercise of freedom; it has to do with crimes that need to be fought with intelligence and determination,” he said.

In accordance to scripture, Francis told those gathered at the beginning of his remarks, God created man and woman in his own image: “Could any more forceful statement be made about our human dignity?”

The Gospel, he said, is clear on the affection Jesus has towards children, and his harshest words “are reserved to those who give scandal to the little ones: “It were better for them to have a great millstone fastened around their neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Among those participating in the conference were representatives from Facebook, Google and Microsoft, three of the world’s leading internet firms.

Jacqueline Beauchere, Chief Online Safety Officer for Microsoft Inc., attended both the conference and the meeting with Francis. On Thursday, as the event was wrapping up for the day, she spoke with a small group of journalists about what she expected from the encounter with the pontiff.

She hopes Francis’s voice on the matter helps put the protection of children from sexual abuse front-and-center among policy issues, at the level of climate change and immigration.

“I really hope there is a follow-up and follow-through, because I have attended things like this before, not of this magnitude, where everyone is so excited and so jazzed to take this forward, and there’s very little follow-up and follow-through,” she said.

On Friday, during the meeting with the pope at the Vatican’s Sala Clementina, Muiireann O’Carroll, a 16-year-old from Ireland, read the “Declaration of Rome,” issued by participants in the conference “on behalf of the children of the world,” appealing to governments, religions, law enforcement, the private sector and health professionals to step up in protection of the dignity of minors.

“This is a problem that cannot be solved by one nation or one company or one faith acting alone, it is a global problem that requires global solutions,” the declaration says. “It requires that we build awareness, and that we mobilize action from every government, every faith, every company and every institution.”

In the era of the internet, the text continues, “the world faces unprecedented challenges if it is to preserve the rights and dignity of children and protect them from abuse and exploitation. These challenges require new thinking and approaches, heightened global awareness and inspired leadership.”

The declaration includes several commitments, from raising awareness of the gravity of the problems and enacting suitable legislation to overseeing developments in technology, identifying victims and prosecuting those guilty of crimes.

“For this reason this Declaration of Rome appeals to everyone to stand up for the protection of the dignity of children,” it says towards the end.

The meeting with the pontiff closed a four-day conference that presented the grim reality of sexual abuse, exploitation and dangers the internet poses to children. According to the statistics given by various experts, one in five girls around the world is sexually abused, and in 80 percent of the cases, it’s done by someone within their circle of trust meaning parents, relatives, close friends of the family or neighbors.

Francis closed his remarks with a series of questions that come from the experience “we’ve all had” of children “looking us in the eye,” which he said “touches our hearts and requires us to examine our consciences.”

“What are we doing to ensure that those children can continue smiling at us, with clear eyes and faces filled with trust and hope? What are we doing to make sure that they are not robbed of this light, to ensure that those eyes will not be darkened and corrupted by what they will find on the internet, which will soon be so integral and important a part of their daily lives?” he asked.

“Let us work together, then, so that we will always have the right, the courage and the joy to be able to look into the eyes of the children of our world,” Francis told those gathered.