When a crisis occurs within families, parents tend to look to trusted advisors; the people who have given them good and sensible counsel in the past. An expanding contributory factor to the crises that can affect families is the internet.
The import of this is that if the Catholic Church wishes to support and assist families in ways that are relevant, priests and religious need to understand the myriad ways in which children can be and are being bullied, harassed or sexually exploited online. Primed with the requisite knowledge and information, people in various Church ministries can provide useful advice to anxious parents and to their children.
Being equipped to navigate the Internet safely allows families – parents and children – to enjoy all of the real benefits, while avoiding the risks, of being online.
The internet is truly international and trans-global in its coverage and reach, and the Catholic Church cannot and need not attempt to tackle the cyber bullying, harassment and sextortion of children on its own.
Making the internet safer and the users of digital technology more knowledgeable are challenges that lend themselves to working in alliance with other like-minded organisations.
This is not just the opinion of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI); it is the view of the universal Church under the leadership of Pope Francis, reflected in the recent ‘Declaration of Rome’. This comprehensive statement of concern and summons to act was developed and debated at a major International Congress held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, between October 2 and 6, 2017. This event was organised by a small working group of Church personnel, NGOs, academics, business leaders, politicians, leaders in civil society, and those interested in safeguarding children online.
The ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’ Congress website (www.childdignity2017.org) describes this innovative initiative as follows: “This global problem calls for a global solution. We need an open and thorough discussion to build awareness, and to mobilise action for a better protection of minors online.
“‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’ is the first world congress of its kind that brings together key stakeholders and international leaders from all relevant areas.”
This pioneering congress hosted by the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome set a milestone in the international fight against digital sexual child abuse, providing a historic opportunity to set the global agenda for the fight against online sexual child abuse and for child protection in the digital world.
The ‘Declaration of Rome’ is detailed and ambitious, and it includes 13 calls to action. At the core of the declaration is a determination that the Church will encourage and support all organisations and individuals that can have a positive impact – it requires that we build awareness, and that we mobilise action from every government, every faith, every company and every institution.
The declaration also commits the Catholic Church to make whatever internal changes are necessary to help protect children online.
Making an early start, The National Board co-hosted with the Irish branch of NOTA an event entitled Child Safeguarding and Digital Media- Practice and Challenges for Faith Groups in Ireland, in Maynooth on October 12 last. This Irish conference addressed the positive opportunities for children and young people that electronic communications offer, while highlighting the risks of digital media and ways of protecting young users against them.
What we know from experience, which was confirmed at the Maynooth conference, is that those who plan to abuse children are constantly seeking new ways of grooming and inviting them to participate in abusive activities; and that we need to be constantly active in trying to counter their harmful and corrupting influence.
The National Board is working on a plan to improve child safety online, which includes clear guidance for use within the Catholic Church. We intend to continue to share our distinctive views with other key players, in order to influence a national debate on this important issue. We want to include children in this plan so that they become co-creators of the initiatives that will best protect them.
One paragraph from the ‘Declaration of Rome’ is particularly relevant:
Technology companies and government have shown leadership in this fight and must continue to innovate to better protect children. We must also awaken families, neighbours, communities around the world and children themselves to the reality of the internet’s impact upon children.
This article is the first step in letting you know that the risk of children’s vulnerability to abuse when using the internet is a real and ongoing problem, but one that can be tackled and overcome.
It is not just a Catholic problem, or a Church problem, or something that lurks unseen on the ‘dark web’. It is a macro challenge that has to be faced through international coalitions: and it is a micro challenge that needs to be understood and addressed in homes and families.
Working together, we can and will protect the children of Ireland and the world.
Teresa Devlin is CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The Declaration of Rome can be accessed here: www.childdignity2017.org/fileadmin/downloads/press_releases/20170531/Child_Dignity_World_Congress_Declaration_ENG.pdf