By Elise Harris
ROME (Crux) – Speaking at a secular conference on child pornography and online threats to youth on Thursday, a Catholic priest said the fight against child abuse isn’t merely a cause for the Church, but for the entire human family and for civilization itself.
During the Feb. 7 panel titled, “Pornography, Minors and Safety on the Internet,” sponsored by the Italian government, Father Aldo Bonaiuto told attendees that “the human family, if we are really civil, we want to fight.”
“We are here because these people belong to us, we feel that they belong to us, we feel that they are our children,” he said, referring to children and adolescents who experience online abuse or who are exposed to harmful content on digital devices.
“We must give hope to future generations. What are we leaving for future generations, what kind of relationships are we leaving, what kind of effectivity are we leaving for future generations?” Father Bonaiuto said, adding that all levels of society – the Catholic Church, other Christians communities, other religions, politicians, parents and lawmakers – have a role to play.
In particular, those who are now in positions of authority “will be held responsible” for their actions, he said.
Father Bonaiuto, who works with the John XXIII Association dedicated to fighting poverty and marginalization, was among the experts, politicians and representatives of major tech companies present at the event, which was held inside the headquarters of the Italian Senate. An Italian band that penned a song detailing the terrifying reality of abuse was also present.
Representatives from Apple Italy, Samsung Italy, Google Italy, TIM, Vodafone Italy, 2 Wind, Huawei Italy and Poste Mobile were present as part of a panel to discuss how tech companies can protect children on the internet and on smartphones.
In his presentation, Father Bonaiuto, whose association runs homes that often receive children from troubled backgrounds, lamented the fact that children as young as 8 are exposed to online pornography, which he called an “undignified activity.”
Quoting Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, he said the porn industry, especially when it involves child porn, is “a crime against humanity” and the product of a “hedonistic” mentality present above all in western societies.
“How many Italians, Europeans, leave and find themselves in Asia…and think they have the right to buy, to ‘rent’ the body of a young girl, of women, thinking they can abuse these children, these girls, not thinking of them as their own daughters,” he said.
A society that engages in this is “inhuman,” Father Bonaiuto said, and criticized large agencies and international organizations that either participate in the porn industry or turn a blind eye.
Antonio Affinita, head of the Italian non-profit organization Moige, or the “Italian Parents Movement” dedicated to protecting children and expanding the rights of parents, said that when the internet arose, there was a proposal in Italian parliament to create an “.adult” or “.ex” top-level domain name for sites with explicit content, but the proposal was dismissed before it got put to a vote.
“There are forces who don’t want this,” he said, adding, “can you imagine how different the internet would be?”
“Unfortunately, in protecting the interests of our children, there are others who protect other interests, and those of our children are not so important,” he said, and urged schools and tech companies to create stricter parental consent requirements so children are not exposed to inappropriate images online.
Affinita also referred to studies linking the use of pornography to violence against women, saying that the “explosion of porn” available to people of all ages “leads to delinquent behavior.”
“A man who looks at pornographic content, can he respect a woman?” he said, noting how most pornography contains violence against women to varying degrees. “We know how the system works,” he said, asking, “how can we help our young men, how can we help parents?”
Nunzia Ciardi, director of the Italian Postal Police (who in Italy are responsible for a wide range of criminal investigations), stressed the importance of awareness and education. He pointed to the dangers of new phenomena such as “sexting,” which he said has a particularly devastating impact on adolescent girls, whose intimate pictures often end up posted online and are easily picked up by porn sites or pedophile rings operating on the dark web.
She also warned parents against online games or sites that show children potentially harmful activities and warn them not to do it, but still show videos of the activity. As an example, she cited the recent death of a young boy who suffocated after placing a plastic bag over his head as part of an online challenge.
Ciardi, who often goes “undercover” on online gaming sites for children and teens to spot pedophiles, cited an instance in which she created a fake account with the number “12” at the end of her username, and had several questionable adult accounts send friend requests thinking she was just 12.
“To give the internet such a power” is terrifying, Ciardi said, adding that awareness is key to tackling “such a powerful (force).”
Lorenzo Fontana, the Italian Minister for Family and Disability, said legislators have a key role to play in helping to keep kids safe online.
While much has already been done in terms of criminal repercussions for illicit activity, “there is still a lot that can be done,” including financial support and awareness campaigns, he said.
Investments, he said, require resources, and governments must act “to help all organizations that are involved in this.” He stressed the importance of helping victims to come forward.
With children becoming addicted to pornography at an increasingly younger age, “it’s necessary to intervene,” Fortunato said, adding that real change in protecting minors online requires not only an “educational update,” but it needs “all actors: parents, politicians and digital operators to ensure safety of children and teens.”