I have had several comments, ranging from the wry, sarcastic, through astonished, to utterly disbelieving or critical about my having attended a conference organized by the Catholic Church to discuss child abuse. In Rome of all places! At a time when two senior officials of the Catholic Church are awaiting trial or investigation in relation to child abuse.
As someone who was brought up a Catholic, attended a Jesuit school and has two cousins who are Catholic priests, I think I can claim some sort of, at least minimal, insight and I know with absolute certainty that the massively overwhelming majority of Catholics, and above all the clergy and the leadership, are righteously angry with the individuals within the Church who betrayed the trust placed in them by children. More than once reference was made to child abuse being a “sacrilege” and in Catholic-speak it doesn’t get much stronger than that.
All of the Catholics I know have also been hugely disappointed by the dreadful mistakes the Church as an institution sometimes made in relation to their handling of a number of cases of child abuse when they came to light. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth but I have an inkling the energetic way in which the Catholic Church’s senior leadership is attacking the problem of child abuse today, particularly within the Church, is at least in part motivated by a desire to expiate and atone for the sins of their collective past.
And if we won’t sit down with the Catholic Church, who will we sit down with? I cannot think of a single institution that has brought adults and children into close proximity that has not experienced exactly the same problems and challenges as those which have beset Catholic bodies. Secular and religious organizations alike have let down kids. Secular and religious alike now know that unless you actively intervene to safeguard children abuse will almost certainly happen and you will not be able to escape the moral and possibly also the legal responsibility for it.
Of course the fall from grace, so to speak, is all the more spectacular, wounding and depressing in an institution such as the Catholic Church which unambiguously founds itself on deeply held ethical principles but the hard-headed fact is the Catholic Church is populated by humans, with all their attendant frailties, failings and weaknesses. If we had forgotten that once, we will never do so again.
Yet it remains the case that the Catholic Church in general, and Pope Francis in particular, exert a unique authority in the world so the fact that they are taking up spiritual arms in the fight for a better internet for children is an event of enormous importance. I was both honoured and delighted to be part of it.
I have never been to anything like it before. There were several notable absences, and I have no way of knowing how they came about – could have been simply diary clashes – but otherwise there was an astonishing spread of leading researchers and child protection advocates from across the world. It would be invidious to single out anyone in particular but I was particularly pleased to be able, for the first time, to listen to Michael Seto. I was even more delighted when, by chance, we ended up in the same workshop and could carry on a more direct conversation.
Many of the other speakers I had both met and heard before and it was great to see them again but one complete newbie for me was Professor Elizabeth Letourneau from John Hopkins University. She confidently asserted that child sex abuse is preventable. In Letourneau’s view the problem is too few policymakers believe that and, as a result, do not invest sufficiently in preventative strategies. Individual children and society as a whole consequently pay a much bigger and more terrible price further downstream.
The Declaration of Rome
The major outcome of the conference was the Declaration of Rome which Pope Francis put his name to yesterday morning. Because this was, as it were, both a statement by a religious leader and also a Head of State the wording had been chewed over and worked- on days, possibly weeks, before. Would I have written it differently if it was entirely down to me? Almost certainly, but even so I could not have improved on statements like these, addressed as they were
To the parliaments of the world to improve their laws to better protect children and hold those accountable who abuse and exploit children.
To leaders of technology companies to commit to the development and implementation of new tools and technologies to attack the proliferation of sex abuse images on the Internet, and to interdict the redistribution of the images of identified child victims.
To government agencies, civil society and law enforcement to work to improve the recognition and identification of child victims, and ensure help for the massive numbers of hidden victims of child abuse and sexual exploitation.
To governments, private industry and religious institutions to undertake a global awareness initiative to make citizens in every country more alert and aware regarding the abuse and sexual exploitation of children, and to encourage them to report such abuse or exploitation to appropriate authorities if they see it, know about it or suspect it.
The Declaration of Rome – Part 2
Everybody who attended the conference was assigned to a workshop. Within them there was a rich and varied set of debates and discussions where several quite detailed and specific points were sharply expressed.
These will be reflected in a further statement or supplement to the Declaration of Rome and this will also carry the full weight of Papal authority.
My search engine tells me that crossing fingers probably had pagan origins so it might be inappropriate to invoke it here. But if it wasn’t, that’s what I’d be doing. Watch this space.