Care of Youth III

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Last October I was privileged to be invited to take part in the World Congress: Child Dignity in the Digital World held at the Gregorian University in Rome and bringing together 140 participants from around the world.

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The participants included: ambassadors to the Holy See; sociologists; psychologists; members of police services from around the globe; doctors; child protection officers from different countries; major charities focused on the protection of children; members of the Vatican Curia; members of major technology companies and many more. There were very few theologians.

What I found such an encouraging part of the Congress was that though we had an exhausting timetable there was always good energy in the room. All participants were focused on the task of learning, exchanging, networking and endeavoring to make a significant difference for the good of children and young people.

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The congress began with a short video of seven young people recounting the way in which they had been abused and exploited. Pope Francis has expressed his own deep concern for the good of children and young people in today’s world.

In the final declaration of the Congress which was signed by Pope Francis participants stated:  “Every child’s life is unique meaningful and precious and every child has a right to dignity and safety. Yet today global society is failing its children. Millions of children are being abused and exploited in tragic and unspeakable ways, and on an unprecedented scale all over the world.”

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We noted that technology’s exponential advancement and integration into our everyday lives is not only changing what we do and how we do it, but who we are. Much of the impact of these changes has been very positive.

We face however the dark side of this new-found world, a world which is enabling a host of social ills that are harming the most vulnerable members of society. While undoubtedly the Internet creates numerous benefits and opportunities in terms of social inclusion and educational attainment, today, content that is increasingly extreme and dehumanizing is available literally at children’s fingertips.

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The proliferation of social media means insidious acts, such as cyberbullying, harassment and sextortion, are becoming commonplace. Specifically, the range and scope of child sexual abuse and exploitation online is shocking. Vast numbers of sexual abuse images of children and youth are available online and continue to grow unabated.

The detrimental impact of pornography on the malleable minds of young children is another significant online harm. As participants we embraced the vision of an internet accessible by all people.

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We believe, however, the constitution of this vision must recognize the unwavering value of protecting all children. We owned that the challenges are enormous, but our response must not be gloom and dismay. As we had done throughout the Congress we asserted that we must work together to seek positive, empowering solutions for all.

We must ensure that all children have safe access to the internet to enhance their education, communication and connections.

We acknowledged that 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.

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We already have potent global platforms in place and important global leaders making significant progress in fulfilling these aims. The Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University conducts international safe-guarding work in 30 countries on 4 continents.

The WePROTECT Global Alliance, launched by the United Kingdom, in partnership with the European Union and the United States, unites 70 nations, 23 technology companies and many international organizations in this fight.

The United Nations is leading a global effort to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.2 to eradicate violence against children by 2030, particularly through the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.

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This is a problem that cannot be solved by one nation or one company or one faith acting alone, it is a global problem that requires global solutions. It requires that we build awareness, and that we mobilize action from every government, every faith, every company and every institution.

As an Educational Institution Regis College is also endeavouring to respond and already includes significant workshops on boundary issues etc. in the ministerial programs. In discussion with the Basic Degree Director and Dean at Regis College we are looking at the possibility of adding to our current offerings in all our ministerial training both information on this problem and an understanding of the resources available to combat abuse and exploitation online.

In addition we are seeking funding to host a two day symposium bringing some international participants to share their expertise with us and already some members of the University of Toronto working in this area have shown interest in taking part.

Next I shall share the calls to action from participants to the Congress and suggest other possible resources to be accessed that we might all assist in the care of children and young people.

Gill Goulding is an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Spirituality at Regis College, Toronto.

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