VATICAN CITY — On Friday, Pope Francis told a group of religious and secular experts from around the world that protecting minors against increasing online threats is a serious new concern, and one in which the Church can be a leading voice, given the experience gleaned from past mistakes.
“As all of us know, in recent years, the Church has come to acknowledge her own failures in providing for the protection of children,” the Pope said Oct. 6. “Extremely grave facts have come to light, for which we have to accept our responsibility before God, before the victims and before public opinion.”
Because of this, “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.”
The Church can’t even attempt to “do this alone — for that is clearly not enough,” he said, but she stands ready by “offering her own effective and ready cooperation to all those individuals and groups in society that are committed to the same end.”
In this sense, he said, the Church adheres fully to the goal of putting an end to “the abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children” that was set by the United Nations in the 2030 “Sustainable Development” agenda.
Pope Francis spoke to participants at the global “Child Dignity in the Digital World” conference, being held in Rome Oct. 3-6, who had an audience with him in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace.
Organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection in collaboration with the U.K.-based global alliance WePROTECT and the organization “Telefono Azzurro,” the first Italian help line for children at risk, the conference brings together people from all sectors of society, including social scientists, civic leaders and religious representatives.
Key points of discussion included updates on the situation, the prevention of abuse, pornography, the responsibility of internet providers and the media, and ethical governance.
In their audience with the Pope, participates presented him with a common declaration outlining several action points for each area and field to develop moving forward.
In his speech, Pope Francis thanked attendees for gathering to address such “a grave new problem,” which, until this week's conference, had not yet been studied in-depth by experts from various fields.
“The acknowledgment and defense of the dignity of the human person is the origin and basis of every right social and political order,” he said, noting that children “are among those most in need of care and protection.”
This is why the Holy See received the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child in 1959 and participated in the 1990 U.N. convention on the same subject, he said, adding that “the dignity and rights of children must be protected by legal systems as priceless goods for the entire human family.”
While we are living in a world “we could hardly have imagined” only a few years ago, Francis said this world is the fruit of “extraordinary achievements of science and technology” that are in many ways changing “our very way of thinking and of being.”
However, while admirable, these rapid advancements also bring a certain concern and apprehension with them, he said, explaining that questions naturally arise as to whether “we are capable of guiding the processes we ourselves have set in motion, whether they might be escaping our grasp, and whether we are doing enough to keep them in check.”
As representatives of various fields in digital communications and organizations, conference participants “with great foresight” have put a spotlight on “what is probably the most crucial challenge for the future of the human family: the protection of young people’s dignity.”
Citing various statistics, the Pope noted that currently more than a quarter of the 3 billion-plus internet users are minors, meaning there are more than 800 million young people navigating the internet throughout the world. In India alone, he said, more than 500 million people will have access to the internet in the coming years, and half of them will be minors.
“What do they find on the net? And how are they regarded by those who exercise various kinds of influence over the net?” he asked, stressing that when it comes to protecting them, “we have to keep our eyes open and not hide from an unpleasant truth that we would rather not see.”
“For that matter, surely we have realized sufficiently in recent years that concealing the reality of sexual abuse is a grave error and the source of many other evils,” he said, and he urged people to “face reality” in this regard.
On this point, he referred to the “extremely troubling” yet increasingly frequent diffusion of problematic activities for youth, such as the spread of extreme pornography online; “sexting” on social media; online bullying; the “sextortion” of young people on the internet; human trafficking and prostitution, as well as a rise in the commissioning of live viewings of rape and violence against minors in other parts of the world.
He also referred to what has been described as the “darknet,” in which traffickers and pedophiles use secure and anonymous channels to exchange photos and information about minors, as well as for human and drug trafficking.
These are the places “where evil finds ever new, effective and pervasive ways to act and to expand,” the Pope said, explaining that the spread of printed pornography in the past “was a relatively small phenomenon compared to the proliferation of pornography on the net.”
And, unfortunately, many people are still bewildered by the fact that these things happen, he said, noting that what makes the internet so distinct “is precisely that it is worldwide.”
“It covers the planet, breaking down every barrier, becoming ever more pervasive, reaching everywhere and to every kind of user, including children, due to mobile devices that are becoming smaller and easier to use,” he said.
As a result, no one in the world today, no single nation or authority, “feels capable of monitoring and adequately controlling the extent and the growth of these phenomena,” since many are themselves linked to other serious problems involving the internet, such human and drug trafficking, financial crimes and international terrorism.
From an educational standpoint, the Church is also surprised, he said, because the speed of online growth “has left the older generation on the sidelines, rendering extremely difficult, if not impossible, intergenerational dialogue and a serene transmission of rules and wisdom acquired by years of life and experience.”
However, he said that, despite the ominous and widespread nature of the threats, “we must not let ourselves be overcome by fear,” nor allow ourselves “be paralyzed” by a sense of powerlessness.
Instead, a global network must be formed to “limit and direct technology,” putting it at the service of a true human and integral progress.
In this regard, he cautioned attendees not to “underestimate” the harm done to minors by various forms of online abuse and exploitation. “These problems will surely have a serious and lifelong effect on today’s children,” which been proven many times over by fields such as neurobiology, psychology and psychiatry.
And while these crimes are especially problematic for minors, the Pope said it’s also necessary to recognize the harm done to adults, including addictions, distorted views of love and various other disorders.
“We would be seriously deluding ourselves,” he said, “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.”
Francis also cautioned against another “mistaken approach” to the problem, which he said would be to think that “automatic technical solutions,” such as filters and algorithms, are enough to deal with the problem.
While such measures are necessary and large tech companies ought to invest in speedy and effective protective software, “there is also an urgent need, as part of the process of technological growth itself, for all those involved to acknowledge and address the ethical concerns that this growth raises, in all its breadth and its various consequences.”
He also emphasized the need to not give into the mistaken “ideological and mythical” belief that the internet is “a realm of unlimited freedom.”
“The net has opened a vast new forum for free expression and the exchange of ideas and information,” yet it has also opened the door to new ways of engaging “in heinous illicit activities,” including the abuse of minors.
“This has nothing to do with the exercise of freedom,” he said. Rather, “it has to do with crimes that need to be fought with intelligence and determination, through a broader cooperation among governments and law enforcement agencies on the global level, even as the net itself is now global.”
Pope Francis closed his speech noting that when he travels abroad, he always meets and looks into the eyes of children, both rich and poor, happy and suffering.
“To see children looking us in the eye is an experience we have all had. It touches our hearts and requires us to examine our consciences,” he said.
“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 not 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?”
“Let us work together,” he said, “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.”