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Protection of Minors: A Global Mission for a Church that Goes Forth

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19 February 2019

We have attempted to offer a summary outline of the sexual abuse crisis by members of the clergy in the Catholic Church in two previous articles.[1] These looked at some orientations to respond to this problem, which will be at the core of a Vatican Meeting for Bishops, February 21-24, 2019. This third contribution aims at placing the topic in a broader framework, in order to foster a better understanding of its significance within the Church’s mission at the service of the world today.

First of all, let us summarize the issue of the protection of children’s rights as a whole, under which the problem of sexual abuse falls. We will then focus on the development of the “digital world” in order to be better aware of the rapidly evolving forms of violation of children’s rights, including with regard to sexuality, and then of the ways to fight and prevent them.

The international community fighting violence against children

In a gradually globalizing world, awareness of the need to protect minors found its expression in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was approved by the United Nations Assembly (1959), and later in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), signed over time by 196 countries of the world (practically every nation, except for the United States). Article 3 solemnly states: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”[2]

Firmly convinced of the dignity of every human person created in the image of God and aware of Jesus’ privileged attention for the smallest and weakest, the Holy See adhered to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as early as 1990. It has committed to implementing its provisions within the territory of the Vatican City State, as well as on those who directly fall under its jurisdiction, that is, the Officials of the Roman Curia and diplomatic personnel.[3]

Outside this limited geographical territory, the Holy See disseminates principles recognized in the Convention to all states and to all people of good will so that, within their own nations and jurisdictions, they can strengthen their own laws and operational norms for the protection of children. In fact, the Social Doctrine of the Church strongly points out that the dignity and rights of children must be legally protected within judicial systems as extremely valuable assets for the entire human family.[4]

More recently, in 2015 as part of the UN commitment to achieve the 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), SDG Target 16.2 was included among others, rightly stating what follows: “End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.” In addition to this, another one – SDG Target 5.2 – more specifically refers to women and girls: “Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.”

Unfortunately, data available on the problem of violence against children collected by various organizations and institutions is still very limited and is generally to be considered as underestimated, because many cases are not reported. An interesting issue in studying violence against children is that it is now clear that “official” reports are unreliable, and those based on personal testimonies must be taken into consideration.[5] As for the more specific cases of sexual abuse, here too victims often do not talk to anyone about it out of fear or shame or distrust, or because they do not know to whom to turn: according to a study, this happens in at least one case out of three.[6] Moreover, in many countries of the world, basically no data is available, or the numbers are totally inadequate. Laurence Chandy, UNICEF’s Director of Data, Research, and Policy, said that for 64 states there is no data on how to measure and achieve SDG Targets: this situation concerns 520 million children.

However, precisely with the aim of evaluating SDG Target 16.2, a group of American pediatricians, making use of 38 quality reports on 96 countries, prepared an interesting study to assess in a reliable way the global situation of violence against children over a one-year time span. There were six main forms of violence taken into consideration: maltreatment; bullying and cyberbullying; youth violence; intimate violence between partners and domestic violence; sexual violence (including online traffic and exploitation); emotional or psychological violence.

The results are striking: over half of the world’s children – over one billion, between 2 and 17 years old – had suffered violence in the past year. In Asia, Africa and North America, the lowest estimated rate concerns 50 percent of children. Considering the size of their overall population, this means that children exposed to violence would be over 700 million in Asia, more than 200 million in Africa and over 100 million in the Americas and Europe combined.[7] Perhaps these numbers are so huge that it is hard to take them into consideration; otherwise, it is difficult to explain why there is not a stronger reaction to this dramatic situation. The World Health Organization has referred to this situation in its information.

In order to offer another broad yet quite summarized and partial look at the issue of the different forms of violence against minors in the world, one can also refer to the 2017 UNICEF ​​Report, A Familiar Face: Violence in the Lives of Children and Adolescents. It deals with four specific forms of violence: violent discipline and exposure to domestic violence in early childhood; violence at school; violent deaths among adolescents; and sexual violence in childhood and adolescence. As expressed in the title of the Report itself, most of the experiences of violence endured by children take place in their ordinary living environment and are perpetrated by people who are close to them or by family members. We selected only several observations from this Report. For example, three quarters of children aged 2 to 4 are regularly subjected to violent discipline by their parents or other caregivers at home; moreover, 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 lives with a mother who has been a victim of intimate partner violence.

Regarding sexual violence, close relationships are at a greater risk: 9 in 10 girls who have reported forced sex say it occurred for the first time at the hands of someone close or known to them (with current or former boyfriends, partners or members of the family) and during adolescence; but only 1 percent of them sought professional help! The situation of boys is similar, even if their number is much lower than that of girls. Let us quote a passage from the report: “There is often a perception that sexual violence is a relatively rare occurrence, and when most people think about this type of violence, they envision rape by a stranger. However, available data reveals that children in many places are at greatest risk of exposure to sexual violence within the context of close relationships such as those with family, friends and intimate partners.

In Mexico, in a survey conducted in 2013, 7 percent of boys and 5 percent of girls in upper secondary school reported that they had experienced sexual mistreatment from their classmates at school during the past 12 months, and 4 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls had been forced into sexual behavior. In the United States, a 2011 online survey of students in grades 7 to 12 (ages 12-18) revealed that nearly half reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment, in-person or via electronic means, over the course of a school year committed by someone they knew through school (including other students, teachers, school employees or anyone else known through school activities).”[8]

Sexual abuse against children is particularly frequent and serious in several places and situations. For example, there is proof that there is a connection between the presence of unaccompanied children in migratory flows throughout Europe and the phenomenon of sexual exploitation. In Italy, almost a third of unaccompanied children (3,500) reported to the authorities in 2015 were no longer to be found.[9] Collecting data regarding trafficking for sexual exploitation is also difficult due to the illegal and hidden nature of this phenomenon. Estimates by associations working in this area in Italy show a 10 percent share of victims of child trafficking (about 2,500 children), 75 percent of whom are female and 25 percent are male.[10] The issue of protecting children’s dignity is connected in this case with prostitution and the protection of women’s dignity.

Finally, as for sexual abuse, we cannot forget the scourge of sex tourism. In this case too, data availability is a real problem. However, the World Tourism Organization estimates that every year in the world three million people travel in order to have intercourse with children in a foreign country. Among the most popular destinations are Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Colombia in Latin America; and Thailand and Cambodia in Asia. The main countries of origin seem to be France, Germany, United Kingdom, China, Japan and Italy. 10 percent of sex tourists are women, and this number is growing.[11]

These figures as a whole are certainly shocking, and it is comprehensible how the international community’s commitment to ending violence against children requires the participation of many international, governmental and nongovernmental organizations and institutions, with strategies that are implemented in many areas, entailing legal, social, educational and economic actions. Fortunately, there is no shortage of ideas, energy and inspiration. For example, under the leadership of the World Health Organization, 10 major international agencies, including UNICEF, have created the Inspire project: “Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children.” There is also a vast galaxy of large and small NGOs spread throughout the world and operating for the benefit of children. The Catholic Church, with its educational, charitable and health activities, is deeply committed in this priority area of integral human development.

Risks and violence against the dignity of children in the digital world

We are well aware that the rise in the use of new communication technologies has already transformed and continues to transform the world we live in very quickly, so much so that today it is normal to speak of a “digital world.” This is not at all a world that is separated from the ordinary life of most people, but it is precisely the world in which we live, in which digital technologies become part of our activities and relationships. This applies even more so to children who have been born and are growing up in this situation. Along with all the positive things and benefits offered by the internet, there are also risks, dark sides and real, serious damage to people and society. Among these we need to mention the possibility that new, unforeseen ways for well-known, dangerous criminal activities will be developed, and new criminal activities will be invented. This also concerns the violation of the dignity of the child, and the violence and exploitation of their innocent bodies.

A particularly appalling criminal activity is the real-time, online sexual abuse of children. It entails that sexual activity with a child is transmitted “live” online through streaming services, and seen by other people who are in a remote place, often in other countries. The latter may order this form of abuse, pay for it and even request how the activity is to be carried out. It is a new form of sexual abuse, in which the abuser can be very actively involved in violence and exploitation even if without physically touching the victim. So-called Child Sex Webcam Centers have been established to provide this horrible service, especially in some Asian countries.

A recent ECPAT-Interpol report indicates that, as a result of the Philippine authorities’ commitment to fight against this phenomenon, it has moved to Thailand and the demand for trafficked children to be exploited in these centers is “surpassing the supply in the Mekong region.”[12] Fighting against this form of abuse is difficult not only for the technical problems of identifying victims and criminals, but also for the international collaboration required to fight this crime. Since these are illegal activities, they generally take place in the dark web, where images are exchanged between certain groups under conditions of anonymity.

The online spread of pornography in the world and the dimensions of the business connected to it have reached unimaginable and frightening levels, and pornography is now very easily accessible to children. Experts estimate that pornographic websites in the world, which are considered legal because they deal with “adult” pornography, now number more than 4 million.

In its 2017 Annual Report, which can easily be found online, PornHub, which is considered the largest pornographic website in the world, claimed to have had 24.5 billion visits, corresponding to 81 million individual visitors every day! It has to be noted that we are actually talking about only one website, even if it is the largest one… In 2016 PornHub stated that its users had watched porn for 4.5 billion hours, 61 percent through smartphones, 28 percent on personal computers, 11 percent on tablets. This means that 72 percent had used mobile devices. This also makes it possible to draw a conclusion about children: considering the usual habits of children, experts estimate that children under 18 who see pornography make use of mobile devices in 90 percent of the cases. No generation before the present one has ever had such easy access to pornography: you just have to push a button on a device that can be found in your pocket.

It is important to avoid any illusions. This is most likely true for all the countries in the world where there is access to the web. For example, in the case of Italy, a study on pornography – carried out already some years ago – on a sample of 303 students (from high schools and vocational training courses from 18 to 25 years of age), pointed out that “almost all male adolescents and two thirds of female adolescents had seen pornography. More disturbingly, at the time of the interview, 42 percent of males and 32 percent of females had seen pornography depicting violence against women, including rape, torture and murder; 33 percent of male adolescents and 26 percent of female adolescents had seen depictions of women seeming to enjoy the violence inflicted on them. In addition, a minority had seen pornography containing sex with animals, sadomasochism, and women torturing men.”[13]

What are the consequences on children in the development of their personality? What are the risks of addiction? What is the image of men and women that these young people will have throughout their lives? A young Belgian sexologist, Thérèse Hargot, points out: “Pornography has a strong influence on girls, who take inspiration in order to understand what boys like and to adapt to their desires.” She also provides examples from which we can understand “a desire to be like porn actresses.”[14]

However, a large portion of the pornographic production available on the internet directly features children, and it is therefore the result of a systematic illegal exploitation or abuse of children. Analysts of the problem of child protection have created a 10-point scale called COPINE (Combating Pedophile Information Networks in Europe), rating the severity of the portrayed exploitation or abuse activity of the children. In various countries different criteria are used to set the threshold of illegality, and this is also a topic for debate among those who are concerned with the protection of children and those who claim to defend personal or artistic freedom of expression. It is a fact that the materials analyzed show a strong increase in the number of websites featuring the sexual abuse of children and a dramatic prevalence, if not a proportional increase, in the representation of the most serious forms of violence and abuse, up to sexual torture.[15]

It is very difficult to identify both the victims and the abusers in this area; the initiatives of law enforcement (Interpol and national police forces) are therefore commendable. These are often carried out in collaboration with other institutions and civil society organizations in order to develop systematic and thorough research on these issues and to monitor and report these obscure criminal activities.[16]

Another aspect of the problem, which is mainly connected to the use of social media and the exchange of images on the internet, is that of sexual images produced by young people themselves on their own initiative or as a result of initiatives and entrapment by other people. Sexting, practiced by young people mostly without them understanding its risks and consequences, beyond its aspect of irresponsible exhibitionism, is a source for the spread of sexual images on the web that easily escape the control of those who produced them. Sexting can therefore be connected to bullying and blackmail practices, which are also very serious widespread scourges in the digital world (cyberbullying and sextortion). In this context, the child can sometimes become a victim and sometimes an abuser.

Clearly, in order to face such issues, the commitment of legislators, police forces, IT technicians, website operators and content producers is imperative. However, those areas which are closer to children’s lives are also directly involved: families and parent associations, the world of education, psychologists and doctors, large religious communities…

In this perspective of a widespread alliance of forces, a congress on Child Dignity in the Digital World took place in the month of October 2017 in Rome at the Gregorian University.[17] It closed with the demanding “Declaration of Rome on Child Dignity in the Digital World,” and had the explicit and strong support of Pope Francis. In his speech to the participants, he said: “The internet has opened a vast new forum for free expression and the exchange of ideas and information. This is certainly beneficial, but, as we have seen, it has also offered new means for engaging in heinous illicit activities, and, in the area with which we are concerned, for the abuse of minors and offenses against their dignity, for the corruption of their minds and violence against their bodies. This has nothing to do with the exercise of freedom; it has to do with crimes that need to be fought with intelligence and determination, through a broader cooperation among governments and law enforcement agencies on the global level, even as the internet itself is now global. You have been discussing all these matters and, in the Declaration you presented me, you have pointed out a variety of different ways to promote concrete cooperation among all concerned parties working to combat the great challenge of defending the dignity of minors in the digital world. I firmly and enthusiastically support the commitments that you have undertaken. These include raising awareness of the gravity of the problems, enacting suitable legislation, overseeing developments in technology, identifying victims and prosecuting those guilty of crimes. They include assisting minors who have been affected and providing for their rehabilitation, assisting educators and families, and finding creative ways of training young people in the proper use of the internet in ways healthy for themselves and for other minors. They also include fostering greater sensitivity and providing moral formation, as well as continuing scientific research in all the fields associated with this challenge.”[18]

In order to ensure a follow-up to this commitment, as desired by many congress participants, the Child Dignity Alliance (CDA)[19] was created, which offers its support to a variety of initiatives in this area. Recently, for example, in the United Kingdom, parliament approved a system that – while respecting privacy – requires age identification for mobile users and therefore makes it possible to block access to children wishing to navigate on pornographic websites. This legislation might be extended to other states. This initiative was supported by 51 NGOs and organizations committed to child protection in European countries and internationally. Pressure was also made on ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the entity that guarantees internet operation, asking for a much more serious and demanding control of the contents of registered websites for child protection reasons when assigning the first-level domains .com and .net; in fact, more than two-thirds of sites offering child pornography use one of these two very attractive Top-Level Domains.[20]

An important initiative, which directly stemmed from the Congress of Rome, is the Interreligious Meeting held in Abu Dhabi last November 19-20 with the participation of many important Islamic religious leaders, Christians from different denominations, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahai, Shintoists and people of other faiths. The Grand Imam of al-Azhar was present, Ahmed el-Tayeb. The Catholic Church was represented by Cardinal Luis Tagle and other dignitaries. The meeting ended with a new Joint Declaration, “Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities: Child Dignity in the Digital World,”[21] an important step in a journey that must continue.

Child protection and sexual abuse by members of the clergy

One might wonder if and how what we have written up to now on child protection against any form of violence and abuse – in the world, as well as in the digital world – is connected with a more specific issue, which these days is a sensitive topic, that is, of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy and persons with responsibilities within institutions of the Catholic Church. The answer is yes; but it must be thoroughly understood in order to avoid any misunderstanding that suggests wanting to avoid getting to the heart of the problem as a whole.

For any person of good will, all children in the world are very important and deserve protection. For a believer, they are also an image of God; and for a Christian, they are the object of Jesus Christ’s privileged love. The abuse of even one child is a serious issue and must be met by indignation. Among the issues of lack of respect for children, sexual abuse is a widely spread aspect and it is certainly one of those (or perhaps “the one”?) which hurts and damages their dignity and the development of their personality more deeply. It affects one’s intimate sphere, it disturbs and upsets the balanced and serene development which every child has the right to.

The Catholic Church has had a great and beautiful tradition in the area of children’s care and education, especially in difficult and poor environments. The commitment to children and youth, in schools of all levels, in which countless female religious and educators, religious men and priests invested their best efforts, has always been a valuable service for human society, not only for the Catholic Church, but for all the peoples where believers went to bear witness to faith. Many saints and educators have set a bright and lasting example. How can we imagine leaving this path, thus falling down? As “children” of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Don Bosco, as successors of pastors of souls whose virtues and dedication were heroic, how do we preserve their heritage? How do we continue to make it bear fruit for the benefit of children, young boys and girls all over the world?

The world changes and the possibilities of performing good and evil actions grow dramatically for all of us. In particular, hundreds of millions of children find themselves immersed in the swirling – and risky – currents of the developing digital world without adequate support. A great expert of these problems, Michael Seto, describes this situation effectively: “We are in the midst of the greatest social experiment without rules in history.” What will happen to these new generations, so dear to us?

Believers, especially faith educators, think that they have to enter into the depths of each soul and heart, in order to help people find the meaning of their life, the keys to the joy in life, their meeting with God. How is it possible to achieve this without the greatest and purest respect for the dignity and beauty of God’s creatures, their rich feelings and their intense emotions, which find in sexuality one of their most effective dimensions? So how should we be, in order to help children grow? How do we have to struggle, in order to be the first ones to be free from violence, the uncontrolled passion of possession and sexual satisfaction, the invading corruption of pornography and any other form of lack of respect for the dignity of the person?

Today, it is important to restore the credibility of the Church community as an educator, an authoritative and reliable guide and companion of the growth of human persons created and loved by God. This credibility needs to be restored not only at the level of external “acceptability,” but at the far more radical one of the inner passion for the service of the other, the discernment of the roots of evil in order to effectively combat and extirpate these roots. Above all, this is true for those who bear greater religious and moral responsibilities, so that they may become worthy servants of others. Ultimately, this is the issue debated in the current fight against abuse. In this way the Catholic Church will be able to resume its task with confidence, its mission of serving humanity in our time.

Allow us to conclude with the words of Pope Francis: “As all of us know, in recent years the Church has come to acknowledge her 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. For this very reason, 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. She does not attempt to do this alone – for that is clearly not enough – but by offering her own effective and ready cooperation to all those individuals and groups in society that are committed to the same end. In this sense, the Church adheres to the goal of putting an end to ‘the abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children’ set by the United Nations in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Target 16.2).”[22]


[1] F. Lombardi, “Preparing the meeting of Bishops on the protection of minors,” and “Child Protection: From awareness to engagementLa Civiltà Cattolica, English Edition

[2] Article 19 must also be noted: “1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”

[3] Despite several doubts expressed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, according to international law it is clear that the Holy See does not have the legal capacity to impose the implementation of any Conventions upon the local Catholic churches and institutions, which must abide with the national laws of the States in which they operate. In fact, any attempt to implement the Convention within the territory of other States could constitute a violation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States. Cf. Comments of the Holy See on the Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2014/documents/rc-seg-st-20140205_concluding-observations-rights-child_en.html.

[4] Cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 244-245.

[5] According to an authoritative study, these latest reports list data which is over 30 times higher than the official numbers in the case of sexual abuse and over 75 times higher for physical abuse. Cf. two articles by Stoltenborgh et al. quoted in notes 8 and 9 in S. Hillis – J. Mercy – A. Amobi – H. Kress, “Global Prevalence of Past-year Violence Against Children: A Systematic Review and Minimum Estimates,” in Pediatrics, No. 137, March 2016.

[6] This data was collected by Thorn Organization (2017) and is quoted in Telefono Azzurro’s leaflet Abuso sessuale e pedofilia.

[7] S. Hillis – J. Mercy – A. Amobi – H. Kress, “Global Prevalence…,” op. cit., No. 5. This study is referred to even in the note of the World Health Organization: www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/violence-against-children/en.

[8] A Familiar Face: Violence in the Lives of Children and Adolescents. UNICEF Report, New York, November 3, 2017, 75.

[9] Cf. “Multi-country study on the drivers of violence affecting children, Italian Report” Florence, Istituto degli Innocenti, 2016, 40. English version: https://www.istitutodeglinnocenti.it/sites/default/files/drivers_of_violence_italy_0.pdf

[10] Ibid., 55.

[11] ECPAT Reports are important in this area, such as: http:// cf.cdn.unwto.org/sites/all/files/docpdf/global-report-offenders-move-final.pdf.

[12] Towards a Global Indicator on Unidentified Victims in Child Sexual Exploitation Material. Technical Report, Bangkok, ECPAT – Interpol, 2018, 14. https://www.ecpat.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Technical-Report-TOWARDS-A-GLOBAL-INDICATOR-ON-UNIDENTIFIED-VICTIMS-IN-CHILD-SEXUAL-EXPLOITATION-MATERIAL.pdf

[13] P. Romito – L. Beltramini, “Watching pornography: gender differences, violence and victimization. An exploratory study in Italy,” in Violence against women, October 17, 2011, 1313-1326, quoted in Multi country study…, op. cit., 39.

[14] The recent Synod of Bishops on Young People has rightly dealt with these issues. The final document mentions them explicitly, for example in No. 23: “The digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence, up to the extreme case of the ‘dark web’ […]; the internet is also a channel for spreading pornography and exploitation of persons for sexual ends or through gambling.” No. 146 mentions the importance to “seek ways of persuading public authorities to promote ever more stringent policies and instruments for the protection of minors on the web.” Thérèse Hargot published a book which was controversial and prompted discussion during the preparation of the Synod: Una gioventù sessualmente liberata (o quasi), Venice, Sonzogno, 2018.

[15] Cf. Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), 2017 Annual Report, found in https://annualreport.iwf.org.uk

[16] A relevant example is the ECPAT-Interpol Report, Toward a Global Indicator…, op.cit., No. 12. The Internet Watch Foundation carries out an important monitoring and reporting work. Every year, it publishes a report which is rich in data and analysis: annualreport.iwf.org.uk/. In Italy, Associazione Meter Onlus, by Rev. Fortunato Di Noto, carries out an important work and it also publishes a report on pedophilia and child pornography every year, http://www.meteassociazione.it/

[17] Cf. H. Zollner – K. A. Fuchs, “The Dignity of Children in the Digital World” in Civ. Catt. Eng. Ed, Safeguarding, https://laciviltacattolica.com/safeguarding. Declaration of Rome, see www.childdignity.com/blog/declaration-of-rome.

[18] Pope Francis, Address to the participants in the Congress on Child Dignity in the Digital World, October 6, 2017.

[19] Cf. www.childdignity.com/coalition.

[20] F. Lombardi – C. M. Polvani, “Per la protezione dei minori. Un controllo efficace della rete,” in L’Osservatore Romano, September 20, 2018.

[21] Cf. https://iafsc.org/newsroom/the-abu-dhabi-declaration.

[22] Francis, Address to the Participants of the Congress “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” op. cit.