Fr. Hans Zollner addresses a symposium at Regis College March 28 on the scope of problems with children and online porn. Photo by Michael Swan

Church urged to take lead in protecting youth online

  • April 3, 2019

Children are in danger and Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner believes the Catholic Church is uniquely placed to protect them.

“There is no other institution that runs more schools, more universities, more institutions than the Catholic Church,” he told a packed lecture hall at Toronto’s Regis College March 28 as he opened a two-day symposium on child abuse on the Internet. “I don’t understand why the Church doesn’t own this problem.”

As the president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University in Rome, Zollner has been making the case for protecting children from adults online everywhere he can. A day-long symposium at Regis College, organized in cooperation with the University of Toronto School of Social Work, brought Church, academic and community leaders together to learn more about “The Dignity of Young People in a Digital Age.”

The event also featured Johns Hopkins University child abuse expert Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in Baltimore. Both Letourneau and Zollner were featured at the Vatican summit of bishops on child sexual abuse in February.

The scale of child pornography and the industry that profits from it is unimaginable, said the German- born Zollner, a psychologist by training who has been at the forefront of the Church’s efforts on abuse.

Project Arachnid, the Canadian- developed software that crawls through web sites detecting child porn imagery, is currently detecting 100,000-plus unique images per month that require analyst assessment, and this number has been increasing each month. In the United States an FBI-run anonymous tip line receives 42 million reports of child abuse imagery per year. At any given moment there are 750,000 child predators online, Zollner said.

Beyond the darknet and portals where illegal activity flourishes and people can anonymously buy child porn, underage sex, weapons, drugs and even find bomb-making instructions, Zollner worries about the availability of legal porn depicting sex between consenting adults.

About a third of the audience watching online porn is underaged, he said.

Too often, children’s online experience is forming what they know and believe about sex.

A 2013 survey of 5,436 Canadian students in Grades 4 through 11 found that 23 per cent of Grade 7 to 11 students go looking for porn online, up from 16 per cent in 2005. For boys that number is 40 per cent, compared to just seven per cent for girls. More than a quarter of the boys (28 per cent) are searching for porn daily or weekly.

While porn is forming the sexual attitudes and expectations of young people, cell phone capabilities are defining courtship in unhealthy and dangerous ways. The same survey found 36 per cent of Grade 11 students had received a sext directly from the person who created it, and 30 per cent received a sext that was forwarded to them by someone else. A significant amount of sexual imagery that students think is private is shared and quickly becomes public. The pathway of any image from private messages to porn sites isn’t difficult to imagine. The potential for blackmailing and bullying vulnerable young people doesn’t need to be imagined.

“We are trying to catch up with a development that has to be tackled at the root,” said Zollner.

The world’s largest purveyor of porn is the Canadian company MindGeek, run from Montreal but for tax purposes registered in Luxembourg. But Zollner has little hope that any government in Canada can have much effect in the borderless world of the Internet.

“What is needed is a global approach and not only one focused on one country,” he said.

Britain’s new law requiring people who access porn to log in with their real names and verify that they are over 18 with a credit card or other ID is a start, in Zollner’s eyes. He would like to see similar laws adopted everywhere. But laws that apply in a single jurisdiction can’t do much, so Zollner is raising a global alarm.

“This has to do with the future of human beings,” he said. “This has to do with living together in society.”


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