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Church Summit to tackle online abuse of chidren

Christopher Lamb - The Tablet - Fri, Oct 13th 2017

Vatican’s top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to address meeting of international experts

A Church-sponsored summit on how to protect children from online sexual exploitation will take place in Rome next week, culminating in a meeting between Pope Francis and participants from across the world. 

The conference, organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Centre for Child Protection, is happening just weeks after the Vatican recalled one of its priest diplomats from Washington for allegedly accessing child pornography.

United States' officials at the state department had asked the Holy See to lift diplomatic immunity from the accused in order to investigate, but the Vatican, following common procedure, recalled him and have started their own criminal inquiry. 

The case gives a renewed focus to the gathering in Rome, which is set to discuss how children and teenagers can be protected from sextortion, sexting, cyber bullying, harassment and exploitation. 

The Vatican’s top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is also set to address to the conference with a talk titled: “The Holy See and Its Commitment to Combatting Sex Abuse Online.”

Those attending the gathering, titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World”, include representatives from internet companies, police forces, cardinals and political leaders. At the end of the 3-6 October gathering they are expected to sign a formal declaration which will then be presented to the Pope. 

Alongside Rome’ child protection centre the conference has been organised by the WePROTECT Global Alliance, whose founder is Baroness (Joanna) Shields, a  former Facebook executive who became the digital adviser to the former Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Vatican has made attempts in recent years to tackle the abuse of children online. Soon after his 2013 election, Francis revised the Vatican City State’s penal code making the use and creation of child pornography a crime for which offenders can go to prison for up to 12 years.

But along with the diplomat recalled from Washington, the Pope was faced with the case of Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the papal ambassador to Dominican Republic accused of sexually abusing boys while serving in the country from 2008-13. He was recalled to the Vatican, laicised and then in 2015 the Holy See announced he would stand trial for child pornography offences. Wesolowski died before standing trial.

The director of the Centre for Child Protection is Fr Hans Zollner SJ, a Jesuit priest, theologian and psychiatrist who has become the Church’s leading expert on tackling abuse. 

In an interview with Crux, he says the recent case concerning the Vatican and child pornography should have been handled differently arguing the Holy See should have explained their reaction differently. In their statement, the Vatican stated that the diplomat had been recalled home to face an investigation for “possible violations of child pornography.” 

Others have pointed out that the decision by the Holy See to release details of the case before they were reported was a step forward, and that only minimal information was handed to them from the United States’ authorities. 

Speaking to The Tablet today, Fr Zollner said he wanted to organise the conference because he had not seen the issue of digital exploitation properly addressed anywhere. 

“Every single parent with whom I have spoken tells me that he or she doesn’t know how to control the internet behaviour of their kids,” he said. 

“I was in Australia with the foreign ministry a year ago, with federal police and the general attorney’s office and I hoped I could get more information and more wisdom about what the international community can do so that young people are protected from the risks of paedo-pornography, of sexual images, and videos on the internet, of sexting or sexploitation. But actually I came out of the meeting with more questions because they very candidly admitted that they have no real measures, at least in an international perspective to handle these problems.”  

He went on: “This conference is the opportunity for people to talk, with each other, and discuss about what is most helpful - the measures that have to be implemented - so that young people may grow up more safe and more protected in a world that has become a world of many risks. And one of the many risks is behaviour online.”  

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