By Larry Magid
VATICAN CITY — For three days last week, about 150 experts in technology, child safety, medicine, mental health and theology gathered in Rome at the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress to talk about how to keep kids safe online and protect children from sexual exploitation. On the final day, the group had an audience with Pope Francis, who endorsed the Declaration of Rome, a 13-point manifesto that outlines the group’s goals for keeping children safe.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Gregorian University and WeProtect Global Alliance. I was there at the invitation of WeProtect’s chairman, Ernie Allen, whose board I served on when he was CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It was Allen who invited me to write Child Safety on the Information Highway in 1994, which kicked off my ongoing work in online child safety.
The Declaration of Rome, which was drafted by the conference’s organizers, represents the consensus that children should be protected from the degradation of being depicted in child pornography and other forms of “abuse and exploitation of the world’s children.”
The document also calls for “the parliaments of the world to improve their laws to better protect children and hold those accountable who abuse and exploit children” and for “technology companies to commit to the development and implementation of new tools and technologies to attack the proliferation of sex abuse images on the Internet, and to interdict the redistribution of the images of identified child victims.”
As the Pope made clear in his remarks, both he and the conference delegates are committed to finding way to keep kids away from “ever more extreme pornography” as well as combating cyberbullying, which the Pope referred to as “a true form of moral and physical attack on the dignity of other young people.”
The Pope also called on internet companies to use “a fair portion of their great profits” to defend children from online harms.
Most of the conference speakers dealt with some of the more extreme and evil crimes against children including adults grooming children for sex, child prostitution and trafficking and abusing children –- sometimes even infants –- to create illegal images that are distributed on the dark web or other networks for the sexual gratification of adults.
But as conference speaker Janis Wolack, who recently retired from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, pointed out in her talk, sexual crimes against children and other forms of abuse have declined over the last couple of decades, just as internet use has grown exponentially. In other words, for most families –- especially those in the developed world –- the biggest risk to children is not abuse from adults but cyberbullying by peers, reputation issues from sharing inappropriate posts or images and issues regarding time management and privacy.
Life online can be brutal for some children in the developing world, which is why I was riveted by the remarks of Cardinal Louis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manilla. The 57 year-old cardinal –- who some say could become the next Pope -– spoke about the relationship between extreme poverty and sexual exploitation in the Philippines and other mostly poor countries. He brought up a relatively new form of crime -– children performing sexual acts in front of a webcam for the gratification of adults.
“I felt that I had to raise it because (most) cases of online exploitation in the Philippines are related to extreme poverty,” he said in an interview. “Most parents in the Philippines are very protective of their children, but some of them have become perpetrators, abusers of their own children just to gain a bit of money. The problem has a context of social poverty.”
He talked about parents rationalizing their children performing online sex acts for strangers because it’s “virtual” and not physical. But, it’s really about making excruciating choices, he said. Do they let their family go without food, place their children at physical risk as prostitutes or allow them to be exploited from their own home? I’m glad I was never faced with a choice like that.
And, yes, the Pope, along with several cardinals and other church officials did address the elephant in the room regarding the church’s own child sex abuse scandals, including the recent case of a Vatican diplomat recalled from his post in Washington, D.C. after being charged with possession of child pornography in both the U.S. and in Canada.
In his remarks, the Pope acknowledged the Church’s “own failures in providing for the protection of children: extremely grave facts have come to light, for which we have to accept our responsibility before God, before the victims and before public opinion.” The Pope added “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.”