In the keynote speech at a conference on protecting children in the digital world, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said child safety is one of the most urgent issues of modern times, and stressed that children on the global “peripheries” shouldn't be forgotten.

In his Oct. 3 speech, Parolin noted that technological and cultural change “is particularly fast in many countries in which social and economic progress are still very limited and unbalanced.” Thousands of children are now growing up in the digital world in vastly underdeveloped nations, he said, which means their parents and educators “will no longer be culturally equipped to accompany them and help them grow in this world, while their governments often don't know where to begin in protecting them.”

“We are also responsible for these children, and the businesses that promote and push the development of the digital world are also responsible for them,” he said.

Given the international and interdisciplinary approach of the conference, Parolin stressed that the participants themselves “must take responsibility for those peripheries of the world of which Pope Francis continually speaks.” The peripheries, he said, are in geographical areas of great economic poverty, but which “are also found within rich societies, where there is considerable human and spiritual poverty, loneliness and a loss of the meaning of life.” “It is no coincidence that it is precisely minors from these peripheries that are the preferred object of global networks of exploitation and organized violence online.”

He pointed specifically to several crimes against children: trafficking, forced conscription of child soldiers, slave labor, prostitution, drugs, all of which are compounded by inadequate education, hunger and poverty. In each of these cases, “the horrible reality of sexual abuse is practically always present, as a common aspect and consequence of a multifaceted and widespread violence,” he said, noting that sexual abuse entirely disregards “respect not only for the body, but even more so for the soul, for the profound vulnerability and dignity of every child,” regardless of nationality.

Quoting Pope Francis, Parolin said “we need the courage” to guard children from “the new Herods of our time, who devour the innocence of our children” through various forms of slavery and exploitation.

Parolin spoke on the opening night of a four-day conference on protecting children in a digitally connected and global society. Titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” the conference is being held in Rome Oct. 3-6 and is organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection (CCP). Participants in the congress include social scientists, civic leaders, and religious representatives from around the world.

Topics include prevention of abuse, pornography, the responsibility of internet providers and the media, and ethical governance. Notable presenters representing the global “peripheries” will be Cardinal John Njue, Archbishop of Nairobi in Kenya, and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines, who will address the issue of protecting minors from the perspectives of Africa and Asia respectively.

Parolin's focus on social peripheries echo remarks from Fr. Hans Zollner SJ, president of the CCP and a member of Pope Francis' commission for protecting minors. In a briefing with journalists Oct. 2, the day before the conference began, Zollner said the issues of child abuse and protection, widely spoken about in Western nations, are also of major concern for developing nations.

He said the problem “is everywhere and the risks are everywhere,” he said. “It is not a Western problem, although in many parts of the world, 75% of countries in this world, issues of child sexual abuse have not reached the level of discussion in Anglo and Western- European countries.”

On the opening night of the conference, the panel of speakers was preceded by a powerful video in which minors who have been abused either online or in person shared their stories, detailing instances of online bullying, body-shaming, sexual exploitation and pornography addiction. The stories depicted included a 17-year-old girl who committed suicide after explicit videos of her, taken by a boyfriend, were posted online. Other stories were that of a young Filipino boy who fell victim to a sex-trafficking ring, and that of a 10-year-old boy who, despite feeling shame, became addicted to pornography.

In his opening remarks, Zollner said that “stories such as these are why were are gathered here.” “We have listened to stories of victims, and now we are here to talk about hope,” he said, explaining that he has “conflicting emotions” about the conference. While he has a “somber feeling” due to the topic of discussion, the priest said he also has a “hopeful feeling” when he looks at the faces present in the audience and the various areas they represent.

Referring to the stories shared in the video, Zollner asked “how can we stop these terror attacks on the heart of the child?” One thing is certain in the process, he said, which is that “there is not one single medicine that will fix it all.” Rather, “it is a combination of threads that weave this safety net,” and the threads are people.

According to statistics given by the panel of speakers, in Europe alone there are currently some 30,000 websites that portray children being sexually abused. Several experts reported that in 2013 alone, 18 million children were sexually abused, amounting to roughly 30 percent of Europe's children. Numbers given by Interpol for 2016 show that at least 5 children fall victim to sexual abuse online per day.

In his speech, Parolin also emphasized the need to form networks, reiterating concern that the sexual abuse of minors is “an immensely vast and widespread phenomenon.” Over the past few decades, the reality of child sexual abuse within the Church has become more apparent, as “very serious facts have emerged,” he said.

Parolin explained that as facts emerged, the Church became aware of the damage done to victims, and the need to provide “a new culture of child protection” which “effectively guarantees their growth in safe and secure environments.” “This is a commitment that requires deep human attention, competence and consistency,” he said, adding that the efforts made must continue to “expand and deepen” with clarity and firm commitment.

Attention is necessary, he said, “so that the dignity and rights of minors are protected and defended with much more attention and effectiveness that has been done in the past.” He noted that “the scourge of offenses against the dignity of minors” now “spreads and aligns itself within the new parameters of the digital world.” “This plague meanders and infiltrates along a labyrinth of paths and through deep, hidden layers of reality,” he said, stressing that the digital world is not “a separate part of the world,” but an integral part “of a unique reality of the world.”

With old challenges manifesting themselves in new ways, the culture of protecting minors “must be sufficiently able to address today's problems.” New energies must be channeled toward a shared commitment “to overcome the sense of disorientation and powerlessness when faced with such a markedly difficult challenge, and to help us to intervene creatively,” he said. Furthermore, “we must work to regain control of the development of the digital world, so that it may be at the service of the dignity of minors, and thus of the whole human race of tomorrow,” he said. “For the minors of today are the entirety of tomorrow’s human race.”

While research and understanding problems are important, Parolin called for a “far-seeing, courageous endeavor” on the part of all participants, and appealed for “the cooperation of every person in a position of responsibility” in all countries and sectors of society. Parolin said that in this regard, special attention ought to be paid to the “moral and religious” aspects of the life and development of the human person.

“The minors of whom we speak and whose dignity we wish to defend and promote are human persons, and the value of each of them is unique and unrepeatable,” he said, adding that each of them “must be taken seriously and protected in this ever more digitalized world, so that they may be able to fulfill the purpose of their life, their destiny, their coming into the world.”

Scripture itself says we are created in the “image and likeness” of God, he said, and in the New Testament it tells of how the Son of God came to the world as “a vulnerable child, and in needy circumstances, assuming both the fragility and the hope for a future that are intrinsic to an infant.” “To disparage infancy and to abuse children is for the Christian, therefore, not only a crime, but also — as Pope Francis has stated — sacrilege, a profanation of that which is sacred, of the presence of God in every human being.”

While the driving forces behind global technical and economic development might seem “unstoppable” and are likely driven by both economic and political interests, Parolin stressed that “we must not allow ourselves to be dominated by” these interests. “The power of sexual desire that dwells in the depth of the human mind and heart is great and wonderful when it advances the path of humanity,” he said, but can also be “corrupted and perverted,” becoming “a source of suffering and unspeakable abuse.”

Sexual desire must be “elevated and directed,” he said, adding that “the sense of moral responsibility in the sight of humanity and in the sight of God, the reflection on the correct use of freedom in the building and orientation of a new world and in learning how to live in it, are thus absolutely necessary and fundamental for our common future.”

He closed his speech calling the defense of children in the digital world “one of today’s most important and urgent issues” for humanity.” Parolin voiced his hope that with the “living sense of the beauty and the mystery of human persons, of the greatness of their vocation to life, and thus of the duty to protect them in their dignity and their growth” in mind, this perspective would “inspire your work and bear concrete and effective fruit.”