VATICAN CITY — All sectors of society must work to end “horrific crimes” of online sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation of children, Pope Francis told a Vatican conference of tech industry bosses and interfaith and political leaders.

His plea, delivered at the Nov. 14-15 conference on “Promoting Digital Child Dignity: From Concept to Action 2017-2019,” came in the face of a proliferation of deeply harmful content and abuse affecting children online that is alarming parents, faith leaders, legislators, security agents and educators.

According to figures from the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of suspected cases of online child sex abuse across the world soared from just over 100,000 in 2013 to more than 18 million last year. Every minute, 20 children are reportedly exploited online.

Children also continue to have access to content on the internet that is becoming “increasingly extreme and dehumanizing,” according to a 2017 declaration on child dignity in the digital world — of which last week’s conference, hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, was a continuation.

The proliferation of unchecked internet access and social media by children means the average age of first access to pornography is “currently 11, and tends to keep lowering,” the Pope told the conference Nov. 14.

A message from the participants at the conclusion of the meeting stated that infants and toddlers are now “the targets for sophisticated online communities,” that children now face “cyberbullying, harassment and sextortion,” and that with cameras on mobile devices, child sexual-abuse images “have exploded.”  

The extent of the abuse has prompted the Vatican to join other decision-makers and religious leaders to take part in two major conferences to address the scourge: a world congress on child dignity in the digital world two years ago that resulted in the 2017 declaration and an interfaith meeting aimed at tackling the problem in Abu Dhabi last year.

 

Taking Action

But beyond the conferences, what action is being pledged and taken to protect children from internet abuse?

In fact, last week’s Vatican meeting was aimed at moving the discussion beyond words to practical measures. For Kevin Hyland, senior adviser to the Santa Marta Group, set up in 2014 by the bishops of England and Wales to combat human trafficking, that should mean more investment and regulation. “If some of the companies invested 1% of their profits in this fight, suddenly we’d have enough to fight this,” he said. At the moment, he said, it’s like “trying to build a 70-story skyscraper but we’ve got the budget for a two-bedroom bungalow.”

A retired police officer, Hyland believes institutions and tech companies are “looking at this through the wrong lens,” as often they view the problem in purely commercial or financial terms. This is about “child murder, child abuse, child rape,” he said, and, therefore, the scourge needs to be looked at through the eyes of those children “whose lives have been destroyed.”

If action is to bear fruit, he continued, a legal framework and regulation must be put in place to create “accountability and responsibility.” Much involves “commitment,” he said, backed up with practical measures such as financial investment. “The technology is there, they can control it,” he said. 

“We’re just scratching the surface,” said Protestant pastor Stephen Gualberto, who ministers in a poor suburb outside Manila in the Philippines — a country reputed to be the “epicenter” of online child abuse. For Gualberto, three priorities exist: to strengthen the family and family values, bolster faith-based groups and their collaboration with government and business, and build an education system that teaches about online safety and raises awareness. 

The tech industry argues that it is already making strides in trying to combat the scourge. Since 2017, “a lot of action has been taken in various sectors, and now we need to knit those pieces together in a constructive and forceful way,” Jacqueline Beauchere, Microsoft’s chief online safety officer, told the Register.

In a practical sense, Beauchere said each company is “investing in its own way” and not always with money, but through “technological investments,” such as a “new technique” Microsoft and others “across the industry” are releasing in January “to help combat and detect instances of child grooming for sexual purposes.”  They have also invested in a four-year research program, especially into teens, whose results will be published in February.

Are they also listening to parents? “Absolutely,” Beauchere said. “We do a lot of work for parents in education, awareness raising,” and developing “parental controls and family settings.” She would not say if this was adequate enough, as production was not her area of expertise, but said Google and other companies show the “same commitment.”

 

Faith-Based Groups’ Role

The conference participants, who included Queen Silvia of Sweden, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, and a number of Muslim and Jewish leaders, placed considerable premium on the role of faith-based groups in both drawing awareness to the scourge and effectively dealing with it.

Father Jeffrey Bayhi who runs a shelter for juvenile victims of trafficking in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, brought up a “question that no one’s asking: How and why have we become so sick as a society? Why is it so many people are interested in a sexual nature in children?”

He said at his shelter he has 15-year-olds who have already “performed 3,000 sexual favors by force”; 40% of the children he cares for have been trafficked by their primary caregiver; and for 80% of them, their “first sexual touch happened within the confines of the family.”

The epidemic of pornography is another factor causing grave harm to children. “The average is that it’s five clicks and a child can go straight to a porn website,” Father Bayhi told the Register, alluding to the ease of access on mobile phones and other devices.

He attributes part of the problem to a false sense of freedom.

“When we no longer see ourselves as here on earth to serve God but to serve ourselves, then all of our sinful natures kick in and become unbridled,” he said. Father Bayhi acknowledged that the Church itself has been handicapped by how some members handled the clerical sex-abuse crisis, but asked: “Are we doing our part to establish God’s dominion over the earth? By and large, I don’t think we are.” 

Father Bayhi specifically wants the Church to “stand for the law of God, regardless of the social consequences,” and not to “change God’s law to keep up with society.” The Church needs to “quit apologizing for our beliefs” and “watering them down,” he said. “With great charity and great clarity, we have to proclaim the Gospel.”

“It’s clear we have to do something,” said Sheikh Ibhrahim Lethome, legal adviser to the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, who sees the problem as a “connector,” bringing all the major religions together to protect children. “Running away, keeping away from the internet, is not a solution,” he said, adding that he believes tech companies are “not doing enough” but placing benefits to shareholders and the health of balance sheets above the wellbeing of children.

 

Conference Conclusions

The conference concluded with six draft goals that included “raising awareness,” undertaking “new social research” of the problem, proposing an “internet industry roundtable” to implement new standards, and mobilizing religions to launch a “global movement” to protect children online.

“We must ban from the face of the earth violence and every form of abuse against children,” the Pope ended his speech to the conference. “Let us look into their eyes: they are your sons and daughters; we must love them as God’s masterpieces and children. They have the right to a good life. We have the duty to do everything possible to ensure that right.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.