A global congress to be held in Rome next week will focus on how to protect children in the digital age, bringing together various experts from around the world to develop concrete ways to combat the issue of online child sex abuse. Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ told journalists Sept. 29 that this is an issue that is dangerous for “many, many young people in the world today.”

Head of the Center for Child Protection and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Zollner said he has spoken to many parents who do not know what to do about their children’s access to the internet: “Everyone is talking and they do not know what to do.” With this congress, “we can propose something we believe could be useful.” But this is just the beginning, he told CNA. “We will start now, but this is again, one step in a very long journey that needs persistence and perseverance and we try to give our contribution to that.”

The world congress, on the topic of "Child Dignity in the Digital World,” is being held in Rome Oct. 3-6. It has been organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection (CCP). The week-long congress will include scientists, academic experts, leaders of civil society, high-level politicians, and religious representatives from around the world. It will conclude with a papal audience, where participants will present a final document — a declaration on future action — to Pope Francis.

In the congress “we will try to sort out some action points that will then be incorporated in the declaration that will be adopted by the participants of the congress at the end of Thursday's meetings,” Zollner said. "Then that will be brought to the Holy Father, so it will be presented to him by a young person. And we hope then, that from those action points, concrete developments will take off."  

Among the speakers are Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who will give a keynote address on the Holy See and its commitment to combatting sexual abuse online. Cardinal John Njue, archishop of Nairobi in Kenya, and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila in the Philippines, will also each present on the issue of safeguarding from the perspectives of Africa and Asia respectively. Topics of the presentations include data and research, prevention of abuse, pornography, the responsibility of internet providers and the media, and ethical governance.

Because the focus of the congress is children and vulnerable adults, Zollner said that including victim/survivors in the congress would not be possible. “For the reason precisely to preserve their dignity, which is in the name of our congress, we decided against inviting declared victim/survivors of sexual abuse online,” he explained.

Instead, they have invited to observe the congress 10 university students, around the age of 20-22, who have grown up in the age of the internet. They will have the opportunity in the plenary and working group sessions to voice “their perceptions, their concerns, and their experiences in dealing with this phenomenon,” he said.  

Another initiative of the congress is a call for scientific papers, which they put out at the conclusion of the week. "We will invite the scientific world to engage in specific areas of concern in a scientifically valid way,” Zollner said. "We hope that this will create then a sort of avalanche of future processes and projects that can then be presented in two or three years’ time."