A leading expert in child protection has said that as the world goes increasingly digital, major tech companies are not doing enough to impose safety measures, cautioning that the prevalence of online child sexual abuse is expanding, with a drastic increase amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to Crux, German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner said advancing developments in technology, information technology in particular, are “allowing new forms of abuse online to take root.”

“The internet and new technologies represent fertile ground in which the sexual abuse and harm of minors and young children finds new forms of expression such as sexting, sextortion, grooming, and live distant child abuse through the exchange, or sending, receiving, sharing, and distribution of images and sexually explicit video content,” he said.

According to Zollner, public reports show that digital forms of abuse are “increasing exponentially from year to year,” and possibly leading to sexual abuse later in life.

This kind of abuse has increased “dramatically” during the coronavirus pandemic, with much of the world increasingly dependent on the internet and digital platforms to function, he said, noting that in some countries, the number of people accessing websites that offer child sexual abuse material “have been much higher since the onset of the pandemic.”

“Thus, those who work in the tech industry have an even bigger civil duty to educate themselves about abuse and how children are more vulnerable than ever before due to technology,” he said.

Zollner said closer collaboration between child protection experts and tech industry leaders is “crucial” to prevention, and he stressed the need for clear safeguards on websites or platforms where children can be groomed.

At the close of a 2017 World Congress on Child Dignity in the Digital Age, Pope Francis, he said, called on those involved in politics, research, and law enforcement, as well as representatives of international organizations and religious leaders, to work to more closely in online abuse prevention.

He stressed the need for big tech companies “to invest a substantial amount of the money they earn in creating more safety measures for children.”

Father Hans Zollner is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. (Gregorio Borgia/AP via Crux)

“Unfortunately, the resistance to do so is strong, and that’s why we need to push this concern and do our part to educate, build awareness, and provide safeguarding tools,” Zollner said, and pointed to the efforts of Julie Inman-Grant, the Safety Commissioner in Australia, and her team as an example.

Zollner is head of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome’s Centre for Child Protection and he is also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

He was recently on the roster of speakers for a two-day virtual symposium titled, “Faith and Flourishing: Strategies for Preventing and Healing Child Sex Abuse,” organized jointly by Harvard University, the Catholic University of America, and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

In his interview with Crux, Zollner said religious leaders also have a responsibility to do more in terms of both recognition and awareness of the problem – which in many places is still considered a taboo – and prevention.

“We see in all institutions, faiths, cultures, and communities across the globe a hesitation to even acknowledge and speak about sexual abuse and its frightening scale,” he said, insisting that faith leaders are responsible for “setting an example for their entire faith community of how to handle sexual abuse that has taken place within its own environments.”

Religious leaders “set standards for how those who are a part of their faith community approach the topics of safeguarding, child protection, sexual abuse, cover-ups, prevention and intervention, etc.,” he said.

“They must be an example to those who make policies — and challenge policymakers at the same time — and also carry on open dialogue with victim-survivors, in order to better create procedures that deal with sexual abuse.”

Zollner said religious leaders also play a crucial role in helping victim-survivors to heal, a process he said begins with listening to their stories.

“This is perhaps the most essential step: listening to how survivors and their loved ones have been affected by abuse,” he said, noting that sexual abuse survivors each have their own path to healing and obtaining justice.

“As religious leaders, we must provide support for them, according to their needs and expectations,” he said, adding that when victims finally do come forward, “there should be proper procedures and resources available to them that will take what they say to heart and help them receive the justice they seek.”

Large-scale events like last week’s symposium and the 2017 Child Dignity conference, as well as other smaller workshops and conferences, are all things that can help spread awareness and get different sectors of society on the same page, Zollner said.

Events such as these are “evidence of a global acknowledgement of the pain that has been inflicted on victims of sexual abuse – something that has either been ignored or concealed in many societies, cultures, and institutions for far too long,” he said, praising the progress that has been made.

Yet in addition to these events, there must be follow-up, he said, adding, “it is important to have an ongoing dialogue between those who participate, giving birth to new ideas on how to confront the issue of abuse, while also deepening our understanding of abuse and its lasting effects in any given culture or context.”

Since not every culture holds the same view in terms of how to handle child sexual abuse, the exchange between leaders of different communities and sectors can foster a more unified understanding and approach, which in turn can aid in prevention, Zollner said.

When it comes to the role of the Catholic Church, it must take survivor stories to heart and intervene when something is not right, he said, saying this will “help ensure the survivor community that their voices have been heard, that abuse is acknowledged, something is being done about it.”

“This trust in our safeguarding efforts rests on the basis of our acknowledgment of the crimes that have been committed in the past – the crimes of abuse as well as of their concealment, cover-up, and negligence,” he said.

As a Church, “we need to ask ourselves constantly: what does the crucified and risen Lord expect from us in our care for the dignity of human beings, especially the most hurt and/or vulnerable ones, and how do we follow His call to put the ‘other’ at the center of focus and not our own reputation, wealth, or position?”

“The faithful and society at large rightly expect us to be courageous and consistent in how our words and our deeds correspond,” he said.