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Cyber ‘slums’ where online abusers prowl need pastoral care

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Cyber world: The Church is recognising the need to respond to “a new form of violence” against many young people and children on the Internet.
Photo: CNS/Tolga Bozoglu, EPA

A NEW kind of ghetto needs the Church’s presence and people’s solidarity: the “digital slum” where cyber bullying and online pornography and abuse run rampant, speakers at a Vatican news conference said.

Online harassment and abuse were “a new form of violence” against many young people and children, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Cardinal Peter Turkson said.

Despite many national and international laws and agreements, “humanity still hasn’t been able to uproot completely the different forms of violence and exploitation against children”, he said on December 9.

Cardinal Turkson organised the news conference to highlight ongoing threats against children and young adults 25 years after the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Virtual” abuse and harassment result in real, not virtual, damage, said Fr Fortunato Di Noto, an Italian priest who, for the past 25 years, has been leading the fight in Italy to protect children from online predators around the world.

With Pope Francis’ emphasis on a Church that needed to go out to the peripheries to meet those who were hurting, Fr Di Noto said the “periphery” included a kind of emotional ghetto online where paedophiles and those addicted to pornography roamed.

In the process of notifying police about online abuse, Fr Di Noto said he and his association, Meter, also had inadvertently created a kind of “tent” church in the dark places of the digital world. By monitoring abuse, they encountered abusers and witnessed “the ambiguous suffering of humanity” in their tortured lives.

They found people who, while inflicting pain on others, were looking for affection, meaning in life or trying to decipher their own pain, he said.

“We have to make sure that these places of emotional destitution, these new digital peripheries that I would call ‘digital slums’, can be made habitable” because places that lacked all forms of compassion and human connection attracted ravenous “vultures”, he said.

His work had become a kind of online ministry, he said, that offered “real accompaniment on the Internet because there are many people who are in need because they ‘live’ in this place every day”.

Cardinal Turkson said education and awareness still played a major role in preventing and eliminating “the terrible plagues” of human rights abuses that were facilitated by or carried out over the Internet.

Fr Di Noto said the only way to make an impact against such crime was for everyone “to get involved”.

Just as there was a Convention on the Rights of the Child, “perhaps we should create a Convention on the Responsibilities of the Adult” to remind adults of their duty to watch over and protect all children, he said.

Unfortunately many young people did not communicate with their parents or other adults about their online activity, even when they were facing some sort of abuse or harassment, he said.

A former victim of cyber harassment Laetitia Chanut told journalists at the news conference about the fear and isolation she experienced at the hands of an online abuser. The abuser stole her identity, photographs and phone numbers to post over the Internet claiming she was available for sexual favours.

Even though she had alerted her parents and friends, the fact that police refused to take immediate action and her abuser’s threats escalated eventually forced her to isolate herself from everyone.

“My biggest mistake was not to talk about it,” she said, because she sank deeper into depression and actually attempted suicide, which then prompted police into action. The abuser was eventually caught, but he was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence along with a fine of $6000, a sentence Ms Chanut said she had appealed.

She urged anyone who was being victimised, threatened or harassed online “to not feel ashamed” and immediately to try to get help.

Fr Di Noto said Meter’s annual school-based educational campaign this year would include giving children a 10-point guide to online safety and a plastic ruler to underline that there were rules in life that needed to be followed.

It was not true that the Internet was a kind of lawless land, he said; “it has very precise rules – the rules are made by you, by how you live there”.

“The problem isn’t Internet, the problem is the human being,” he said; it was the human evil or weaknesses that the person brought to the world through whatever medium.

That was why there needed to be more solidarity and community action online with people taking responsibility for their own actions and stepping up to the wider responsibility of helping save children from online abuse.


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