Child dignity in a digital world

Fr General Sosa SJ and Fr Hans Zollner SJ welcomed a group of experts from around the world at a conference last week at the Gregorian University, on ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’. The conference was partnered by WePROTECT, a global alliance founded by Baroness Joanna Shields who is currently the UK Prime Minister's special representative on internet safety.  The conference delivered over 30 speeches, technical reports and a series of workshops by an unprecedented variety of institutions offering different perspectives. Dr Tim Morris the executive director of police services Interpol, offered a perspective from law enforcement, whilst Dr Antigone Davis, head of global safety policy on Facebook, and Microsoft chief online safety officer Jacqueline Beauchere explained how leading tech providers were engaging with safeguarding and the emerging threats to children. They addressed 150 delegates, who included ambassadors, representatives from the United Nations, the Council of Europe and other supranational bodies.

Themes that were discussed included online victimisation, the long-term effects on the brains of children through exposure to online pornography, and issues regarding balancing freedom and safeguarding responsibilities.  Cardinal Njue and Cardinal Tagle offered perspectives from the developing world where most new online users are coming from. One of the aims of the conference was to shine a light on the dark web which is a small part of the deep web –  parts of the internet that are not indexed by search engines. Heavily encrypted, the dark web allows users to swap files anonymously. Thus items such as drugs, weapons, software viruses and illegal pornography are sold and swapped, and money is laundered.

Pope Francis addressed the conference at the end and the delegates presented Pope Francis with an action plan known as The  Rome Declaration.  In essence, this is a call to action of all sectors of society from religious and faith leaders, to tech companies, medical institutions and law enforcement agencies to protect children and hold accountable those who abuse them or facilitate abuse. The British Ambassador to the Vatican, Mrs Sally Axworthy said, “This was an important conference bringing together government, industry, faith groups and NGOs to look at how we can develop child safety online. Of particular importance was how we can tackle online child sexual exploitation. WePROTECT Global Alliance, represented by the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Internet Safety, Baroness Shields, and WePROTECT Global Alliance Board Members played a leading role. We are committed to working with the Vatican and other partners to make the commitments in the Rome Declaration a reality”.

The Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian was started in 2012 and was based in Munich, Germany for the first two years. In its inaugural event, it held a symposium on ‘towards healing and renewal’. It moved to Rome in 2014 and became part of the department of psychology at the Gregorian University. It now offers a diploma in the safeguarding of minors, and soon will be offering a two-year masters degree in safeguarding. It also provides e-learning resources as well as hosting conferences.  Fr Zollner travels around the world offering workshops to Bishops' Conferences on safeguarding.