The phenomenon deviously circulates on the web. It has several definitions: sextortion, sexting, cyberbullying, grooming. The victims are many, children and adolescents in particular. Moreover, 25% of over 3.2 billion internet users worldwide are children. More than 800 million youths are exposed to the risk of falling victims of online grooming. In the light of this situation the Child Protection Centre (within the Gregorian Pontifical University) summoned in Rome all those involved in countering this problem in different ways. Government representatives, business executives – especially CEOs of companies linked to the Internet world – law-enforcement authorities, NGOs, international organizations such as UNICEF, along with representatives of media outlets and religious communities: Christians, Jews and Muslims, and experts in the digital world . They will meet again October 3 to 6 to participate in the first global conference of its kind titled: “Child Dignity in the Digital World.” “The purpose of the meeting – Father Hans Zollner, President of the Gregorian University’s Child Protection Centre, told SIR – is to elicit a discussion and sharing platform, and, above all, to launch a set of actions against the sexual abuse of minors online and for the protection of minors in the digital environment.”
Father Zollner, what are the most worrying aspects of this phenomenon?
Sexual abuse of minors exists in all societies, cultures and countries in the world; this evil is much more widespread than one imagines. A few years ago the European Union launched an initiative titled “One in Five”, based on data showing that one in five boys or girls, that is, 20% of all minors in Europe, are victims of some form of sexual violence. These are horrifying figures. From this perspective, the Internet – a wonderful communication tool – can become a dangerous place, triggering a spiral of danger. Let us consider for example the phenomenon of “sexting”: mostly against girls who are forced by their peers to post pictures of themselves naked, but once the image is online it remains in the web forever and it is constantly re-launched into a system that spirals out of control. There is also the phenomenon of sexual violence committed against very small children filmed “live” in a given world country, seen “live” and paid from anywhere in the world.
Are you referring to the Periscope phenomenon?
This phenomenon circulates very easily also on Skype. What is most surprising is that so many people talk about these situations, yet governments and businesses have failed to adopt targeted, determined actions to counteract them. Something has been done, but it remains a drop in the ocean. Thus we decided to organize this Conference to bring all those in positions of responsibility around the same table and find ways whereby each and everyone together can do their share.
Which enforcement actions can be adopted to counter such a devious and widespread phenomenon?
Focusing on education will be extremely important. Youths today know how to bypass programs that block online access to certain websites. Thus it will be increasingly important to educate youths on the responsible use of the Internet, without forgetting social media, which ranges from Snapchat to Facebook, where youths establish connections, and befriend strangers with the risk of becoming victims of dangerous circles. Businesses should thus declare what they want and can do to avoid “grooming”, which is the process by which an adult befriends a child with the intention of committing sexual abuse. We call upon government authorities to contact businesses, ensure that they fulfil their responsibilities and then – with dedicated legislation – reach an agreement to prevent the perpetrators of abuses to seek their victims on the web.
The world of child molesters unfortunately also sees the presence of priests and religious. Sadly the scandals are ongoing.
Our goal is to give a clear sign that the Church is the first to assume her responsibilities, and that we want and must cooperate with law-enforcement authorities. We are not a separate reality, thus not only must we comply with the law, we must also actively cooperate with the State. Obviously, child sexual abuse , that includes child pornography images, is a serious crime. This crime is even more serious when it is committed by a priest or a religious. That’s why the Pope, during the audience he granted to us last Thursday as representatives of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection, reiterated his zero tolerance approach towards all forms of abuse inside the Church. Unquestionably, a clear line has been adopted by the Holy See and by Bishops’ Conference worldwide. But this approach won’t solve the problem: there will always be people who will continue doing harm and committing these crimes. Our commitment is thus to persevere in our endeavour to do our utmost to stop this evil and offer this platform of discussion and action to all involved parties.
Speaking to the members of the Pontifical Commission the Pope said that the Church addressed these crimes with considerable delay, while a few months ago Marie Collins denounced what she believed to be excessive inactivity. Unfortunately the issue was addressed too late and with poor efforts. What is your reply to this criticism?
Many people are engaged in addressing this situation at length. In those places where the Church has put her greatest efforts – as in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Australia – prevention activity has delivered positive results. This is out of question. Often courage is what is lacking. In my journeys to 50 world countries I noticed that the phenomenon is not fully acknowledged. It should be said that the phenomenon was seriously addressed in Italy no later than eight years ago. The issue was swept under the carpet and nobody wanted to talk about it. It was an uncomfortable, painful theme that is hard to cope with, in some cases the will to address it is lacking: this is true not only inside the Church but also across society,
There is no other explanation to the fact that nobody acknowledges that the European Union launched a campaign because one in five European youths was sexually abused. Is the phenomenon too horrendous to speak of? Indeed, it is. And that is why we must discuss it.