Pope Francis told executives of leading internet companies on Friday to use "their great profits" to defend children from sexual exploitation and other dangers lurking online.
The pontiff, speaking at a conference in Rome, said the Catholic Church needed to accept responsibility "before God, victims and public opinion" for its own sex abuse scandals, but wanted to share the lessons it had learned.
Speaking to participants including representatives from Facebook and Microsoft, he said social media businesses had to do more than set up filters and algorithms to block harmful content.
The 80-year-old pope spoke out against the spread of extreme pornography, the dangers of so-called "sexting" between young people and between adults and children, and cyberbullying, calling it "a true form of moral and physical attack."
The conference was planned some two years ago, but it unfolded precisely at the time when the Vatican was confronted with a child porn scandal of its own. The Vatican recalled from its embassy in Washington one of its senior diplomats who has been caught up in an international child porn investigation.
Canadian police have issued an arrest warrant for Monsignor Carlo Capella, accusing him of accessing, possessing and distributing child pornography during a visit to an Ontario church over Christmas. He is now in the Vatican, where prosecutors have opened an investigation.
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Some U.S. church officials and critics balked at the recall, saying the Vatican should have waived diplomatic immunity and allowed Capella to face charges in the U.S. or Canada. Vatican officials have defended the recall as consistent with common diplomatic practice and suggested that Capella will face a criminal trial in the Vatican if the evidence warrants it.
Church officials have been caught up in a series of scandals around the world — two years ago, the Vatican put its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, an archbishop, on trial for child sex offences. He died before a verdict was reached.
The Vatican in 2013 criminalized child porn possession, distribution and production, with sanctions varying from up to two years and a 10,000-euro fine ($14,725 Cdn) to 12 years and a 250,000-euro fine ($368,128 Cdn).
Church's 'own failures' acknowledged
The conference, held at a pontifical university in Rome, brought together experts from digital companies, law enforcement, medicine and academia to discuss online bullying, pornography and the preying on children by paedophiles.
The pope said social media businesses had to invest "a fair portion of their great profits" to protect "impressionable minds."
He said it would be a mistake to think that "automatic technical solutions, filters devised by ever more refined algorithms in order to identify and block the spread of abusive and harmful images, are sufficient to deal with these problems."
Let us ensure that the Internet is a safe and richly human place for children: a network that does not entrap them but helps them to grow.— @Pontifex
Businesses also had to address the broader ethical concerns associated with the growth of technology, rejecting the concept of "an ideological and mythical vision of the net as a realm of unlimited freedom."
He said that while the digital revolution had enormous advantages, "we rightly wonder if we are capable of guiding the processes we ourselves have set in motion, whether they might be escaping our grasp."
The pope acknowledged the Church's "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."
Because of "skills gained in the process of conversion and purification," he said the Church felt "especially bound to work strenuously and with foresight for the protection of minors and their dignity."
Since the Church's scandals exploded around the world about 20 years ago, it has strived to put in to place so-called best practices to protect children. It has defrocked priests, worked with local police and the pope has declared a "zero tolerance" where clerics could not appeal a conviction on technical grounds.
But victim's groups say the Vatican and the pope have not gone far enough, particularly in making bishops accountable for covering up or mishandling cases of child abuse.
A commission Francis set up in 2014 to advise him on how to root out sexual abuse has been hit by defections by two key members who lamented lack of progress and cooperation from Vatican officials.
Participants at the congress offered sobering statistics about the problem: Last year, Interpol identified five child victims of online abuse every day, while the Internet Watch Foundation identified more than 57,000 websites containing child sexual abuse images.
The Congress on Child Dignity in the Online World issued a 13-point call to action that it presented to Francis on Friday.
Their declaration demands that:
- Lawmakers and governments improve laws to protect children online and punish perpetrators of child porn production.
- Technology companies develop better ways to block redistribution of porn and attack the proliferation of child porn images already on the web.
- Law enforcement agencies improve information sharing and ensure help for young victims of online exploitation.
- Health professionals enhance training to recognize signs of abuse and increase research into the effects of viewing porn on young minds.
- Faith leaders, governments and civil society to increase awareness about the problem.
Francis said he wanted each of them to remember that children look to adults, with light in their eyes and trust in their heart, to protect them.
"What are we doing to make sure they are not robbed of this light, to ensure that those eyes will not be darkened and corrupted by what they will find on the internet?"