I was walking through Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City, still in disbelief that I was attending this historic event. Along with 150 representatives from leading organizations, institutions, and governments, I was presenting Pope Francis with the “Declaration of Rome.” This declaration was the capstone of the World Congress on Child Dignity in the Digital World, a gathering sponsored by the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, in partnership with the WePROTECT Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online and Telefono Azzurro, an Italian nonprofit and helpline protecting children from abuse.
We spent three days in presentations and workshops, hearing from experts presenting on their respective work to inform the collective Declaration we would be presenting to the Pope.
What do we know about the state of child sexual abuse?
First, we dug into the research. Thorn advisor Dr. Michael Seto shared what we know about online offenders. Dr. Letourneau of the Johns Hopkins Moore Center highlighted her research on preventing this abuse. Dr. Janis Wolak of the University of New Hampshire (who helped produce Thorn’s Sextortion Research) discussed what we know about child victims. Dr. Tim Morris of Interpol explained the challenge law enforcement is facing in identifying victims and abusers.
What proven methods are we doing to protect kids online?
Next, came talk of solutions from across the globe. Thorn partners, Facebook and Microsoft, shared what their companies are doing to make their platforms safer for kids. Global leaders from the African Union, Council of Europe, and UNICEF explained the unique challenges each of their countries are facing and how they’re tackling this problem at home.
Throughout the Congress, we broke into cross-sector groups to discuss where we think we go from here. I was honored to work with my group, which included academics from the Netherlands, professors from Italy, technology leaders from the US, and government officials from Australia. We landed on two key needs – 1) more research to document the scope of the problem, which would motivate a more robust response from government, and 2) increased awareness, so we can better talk about this problem and bring about change at the community level.
“The Bronze Door, please.”
This whirlwind of intensive learning, brainstorming, and discussions, led us to the Bronze Door (literally massive door you walk through before attending a papal audience). As we sat down to await the Pope, my leg started shaking with my excited nerves and I must have taken a hundred photos so I could remember every last detail of this day. The room fell silent as Pope Francis began his remarks – calling on all of us to protect the dignity of children, and addressing all kinds of abuse, from sextortion, to online sex trafficking, to child abuse content in the Dark Web. By using his profound platform, the Pope brought a light to the darkest issues that Thorn and our partners work on every day.
“What are we doing to ensure that those children can continue smiling at us, with clear eyes and faces filled with trust and hope? Let us work together, then, so that we will always have the right, the courage and the joy to be able to look into the eyes of the children of our world.”
During his remarks, Pope Francis committed the full weight of the Catholic Church behind the goal of protecting kids from sexual abuse. Thorn is grateful for his commitment to our kids and we hope you join us too.