A new kind of ghetto needs the Church’s presence and people’s solidarity: the “digital slum” where cyberbullying and online pornography and abuse run rampant, said speakers at a recent Vatican news conference.
Online harassment and abuse are “a new form of violence” against many young people and children, said Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Despite many national and international laws and agreements, “humanity still hasn’t been able to uproot completely the different forms of violence and exploitation against children,” he said.
Cardinal Turkson organised the news conference to highlight ongoing threats against children and young adults 25 years after the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Virtual” abuse and harassment result in real, not virtual, damage, said Fr Fortunato Di Noto, an Italian priest who, for the past 25 years, has been leading the fight in Italy to protect children from online predators around the world.
With Pope Francis’ emphasis on a Church that needs to go out to the peripheries to meet those who are hurting, Fr Di Noto said the “periphery” includes a kind of emotional ghetto online where paedophiles and those addicted to pornography roam.
In the process of notifying police about online abuse, Fr Di Noto said that he and his association, Meter, also had inadvertently created a kind of “tent” Church in the dark places of the digital world. By monitoring abuse, they encounter abusers and witness “the ambiguous suffering of humanity” in their tortured lives.
They find people who, while inflicting pain on others, are looking for affection, meaning in life or trying to decipher their own pain, he said.
“We have to make sure that these places of emotional destitution, these new digital peripheries that I would call ‘digital slums,’ can be made habitable” because places that lack all forms of compassion and human connection attract ravenous “vultures,” he said.
His work has become a kind of online ministry, he said, that offers “real accompaniment on the internet because there are many people who are in need because they ‘live’ in this place every day”.
Education and awareness still play a major role in preventing and eliminating “the terrible plagues” of human rights abuses that are facilitated by or carried out over the internet, Cardinal Turkson said.
Fr Di Noto said the only way to make an impact against such crime is for everyone “to get involved”.
Just as there is a Convention on the Rights of the Child, “perhaps we should create a Convention on the Responsibilities of the Adult” to remind adults of their duty to watch over and protect all children, he said.
Unfortunately, many young people do not communicate with their parents or other adults about their online activity, even when they are facing some sort of abuse or harassment, he said.
Laetitia Chanut, a former victim of cyber harassment, told the conference about the fear and isolation she experienced at the hands of an online abuser. The abuser stole her identity, photographs and phone numbers to post over the internet, claiming she was available for sexual favours.
Even though she had alerted her parents and friends, the fact that police refused to take immediate action and her abuser’s threats escalated eventually forced her to isolate herself from everyone.
“My biggest mistake was not to talk about it,” she said, because she sank deeper into depression and actually attempted suicide, which then prompted police into action. The abuser was eventually caught, but he was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence along with a fine of $6,000, a sentence Chanut said she has appealed.
She urged anyone who is being victimised, threatened or harassed online “to not feel ashamed” and immediately to try to get help.
Fr Di Noto said Meter’s annual school-based educational campaign this year will include giving children a 10-point guide to online safety and a plastic ruler to underline that there are rules in life that need to be followed.
It’s not true that the internet is a kind of lawless land, he said; “it has very precise rules – the rules are made by you, by how you live there.
“The problem isn’t the internet, the problem is the human being,” he said, it is the human evil or weaknesses that the person brings to the world through whatever medium.
That is why there needs to be more solidarity and community action online, with people taking responsibility for their own actions and embracing the wider responsibility of helping save children from online abuse.