It is important to restore the credibility of the Catholic community as an educator and reliable guide
Virginia Saldanha, secretary of the Indian Women Theologians Forum and Ecclesia of Women in Asia, addresses the media at the Vatican on Feb. 20 during a gathering with members of Ending Clergy Abuse, a global organization of prominent survivors and activists who are in Rome for this week’s papal summit. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
In a gradually globalizing world, awareness of the need to protect minors found its expression in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was approved by the United Nations Assembly (1959), and later in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), signed over time by 196 countries (practically every nation, except for the United States).
Article 3 solemnly states: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
Firmly convinced of the dignity of every human person created in the image of God and aware of Jesus’ privileged attention for the smallest and weakest, the Holy See adhered to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as early as 1990. It has committed to implementing its provisions within the territory of the Vatican City State, as well as on those who directly fall under its jurisdiction, that is, the officials of the Roman Curia and diplomatic personnel.
Outside this limited geographical territory, the Holy See disseminates principles recognized in the Convention to all states and to all people of goodwill so that, within their own nations and jurisdictions, they can strengthen their own laws and operational norms for the protection of children. In fact, the Social Doctrine of the Church strongly points out that the dignity and rights of children must be legally protected within judicial systems as extremely valuable assets for the entire human family.
Unfortunately, data available on the problem of violence against children collected by various organizations and institutions is still very limited and is generally to be considered as underestimated, because many cases are not reported. An interesting issue in studying violence against children is that it is now clear that “official” reports are unreliable, and those based on personal testimonies must be taken into consideration.
As for the more specific cases of sexual abuse, here too victims often do not talk to anyone about it out of fear or shame or distrust, or because they do not know to whom to turn: according to a study, this happens in at least one case out of three. Moreover, in many countries, basically no data is available or the numbers are totally inadequate.
However, a group of American pediatricians, making use of 38 quality reports on 96 countries, prepared an interesting study to assess in a reliable way the global situation of violence against children over a one-year time span. There were six main forms of violence taken into consideration: maltreatment; bullying and cyberbullying; youth violence; intimate violence between partners and domestic violence; sexual violence (including online traffic and exploitation); emotional or psychological violence.
The results are striking: over half of the world’s children — over one billion, aged 2-17 — had suffered violence in the past year. In Asia, Africa and North America, the lowest estimated rate concerns 50 percent of children. Considering the size of their overall population, this means that children exposed to violence would be over 700 million in Asia, more than 200 million in Africa and over 100 million in the Americas and Europe combined. Perhaps these numbers are so huge that it is hard to take them into consideration; otherwise, it is difficult to explain why there is not a stronger reaction to this dramatic situation. The World Health Organization has referred to this situation in its information.
Scourge of sex tourism
We cannot forget the scourge of sex tourism. In this case too, data availability is a real problem. However, the World Tourism Organization estimates that every year in the world three million people travel in order to have intercourse with children in a foreign country. Among the most popular destinations are Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Thailand and Cambodia. The main countries of origin seem to be France, Germany, Britain, China, Japan and Italy. About 10 percent of sex tourists are women, and this number is growing.
We are well aware that the rise in the use of new communication technologies has already transformed and continues to transform the world we live in very quickly, so much so that today it is normal to speak of a “digital world.” This is not at all a world that is separated from the ordinary life of most people, but it is precisely the world in which we live, in which digital technologies become part of our activities and relationships. This applies even more so to children who have been born and are growing up in this situation.
Along with all the positive things and benefits offered by the internet, there are also risks, dark sides and real, serious damage to people and society. Among these we need to mention the possibility that new, unforeseen ways for well-known, dangerous criminal activities will be developed, and new criminal activities will be invented. This also concerns the violation of the dignity of the child, and the violence and exploitation of their innocent bodies.
A particularly appalling criminal activity is the real-time, online sexual abuse of children. It entails that sexual activity with a child is transmitted “live” online through streaming services, and seen by other people who are in a remote place, often in other countries. The latter may order this form of abuse, pay for it and even request how the activity is to be carried out. It is a new form of sexual abuse, in which the abuser can be very actively involved in violence and exploitation even if without physically touching the victim.
The online spread of pornography in the world and the dimensions of the business connected to it have reached unimaginable and frightening levels, and pornography is now very easily accessible to children. Experts estimate that pornographic websites in the world, which are considered legal because they deal with adult pornography, now number more than 4 million.
In its 2017 annual report, PornHub, which is considered the largest pornographic website in the world, claimed to have had 24.5 billion visits, corresponding to 81 million individual visitors every day.
Sexual abuse by members of the clergy
For any person of goodwill, all children in the world are very important and deserve protection. For a believer, they are also an image of God; and for a Christian, they are the object of Jesus Christ’s privileged love. The abuse of even one child is a serious issue and must be met by indignation. Among the issues of lack of respect for children, sexual abuse is a widely spread aspect and it is certainly one of those which hurts and damages their dignity and the development of their personality more deeply. It affects one’s intimate sphere, it disturbs and upsets the balanced and serene development which every child has the right to.
The Catholic Church has had a great and beautiful tradition in the area of children’s care and education, especially in difficult and poor environments. The commitment to children and youth, in schools of all levels, in which countless female religious and educators, religious men and priests invested their best efforts, has always been a valuable service for human society, not only for the Catholic Church but also for all the peoples where believers went to bear witness to faith.
Many saints and educators have set a bright and lasting example. How can we imagine leaving this path, thus falling down? As “children” of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Don Bosco, as successors of pastors of souls whose virtues and dedication were heroic, how do we preserve their heritage? How do we continue to make it bear fruit for the benefit of children, young boys and girls all over the world?
Believers, especially faith educators, think that they have to enter into the depths of each soul and heart in order to help people find the meaning of their life, the keys to the joy in life, their meeting with God. How is it possible to achieve this without the greatest and purest respect for the dignity and beauty of God’s creatures, their rich feelings and their intense emotions, which find in sexuality one of their most effective dimensions? So how should we be, in order to help children grow? How do we have to struggle in order to be the first ones to be free from violence, the uncontrolled passion of possession and sexual satisfaction, the invading corruption of pornography and any other form of lack of respect for the dignity of the person?
Today, it is important to restore the credibility of the Church community as an educator, an authoritative and reliable guide and companion of the growth of human persons created and loved by God. This credibility needs to be restored not only at the level of external acceptability but at the far more radical one of the inner passion for the service of the other, the discernment of the roots of evil in order to effectively combat and extirpate these roots.
Above all, this is true for those who bear greater religious and moral responsibilities so that they may become worthy servants of others. Ultimately, this is the issue debated in the current fight against abuse. In this way the Catholic Church will be able to resume its task with confidence, its mission of serving humanity in our time.
Father Federico Lombardi SJ is a moderator of plenary sessions at the Vatican meeting on protecting minors from sexual abuse from Feb. 21-24. This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in La Civilta Cattolica here.
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