Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO, meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican while attending the ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’ Congress in 2017.
The Pope has acknowledged the “urgent need to heal wounds” of child sexual abuse amid calls from the IWF for the Catholic Church to take a “moral lead” on tackling online abuse.
Addressing an inter-faith conference in the Vatican this week on fighting online child sexual abuse, Pope Francis said “tragic experience” has made the Catholic Church aware of the gravity of the consequences of child abuse.
This comes as Susie Hargreaves OBE, CEO of the Internet Watch Foundation, who is attending the conference, said religious leaders need to do “a lot more” to face up to “what has happened in the past”.
The IWF works to remove child sexual abuse images and videos from the internet.
Speaking on Thursday (November 14), Pope Francis said internet companies need to take greater responsibility for what is posted on online platforms.
He said: “For the sake of advancing the development of the internet and its many benefits, companies that provide services have long considered themselves mere suppliers of technical platforms, neither legally nor morally responsible for the way they are used.”
He added: “There is a need to ensure that investors and managers remain accountable, so that the good of minors and society is not sacrificed for profit.”
Ms Hargreaves said online abuse is “not a victimless crime” and that it can only be solved when industry leaders, governments, and law enforcement groups work together.
Ms Hargreaves said: “It is something to be applauded that all the different religious leaders are getting together to talk about the problem and stepping up, although there is a lot more that can be done, and a lot more public acknowledgement as well of what has happened in the past.
“However, it is really good that the Catholic Church has taken the initiative to bring together not just the religious leaders, but experts in the field, and it is a real honour to be one of those experts.”
Pope Francis said: “In recent decades, from painful and tragic experience, the Catholic Church has become profoundly aware of the gravity and effects of the sexual abuse of minors, the suffering it causes, and the urgent need to heal wounds, combat such crimes, and establish effective means of prevention.
“For this reason, the Church senses the duty to approach with a long-term vision.”
Ms Hargreaves added: “It would be impossible to solve the problem unless all the relevant partners work together and where people have influence and, indeed the Catholic Church and other religions have huge influence, they are meant to be taking a moral lead.”
The National Crime Agency estimates that 144,000 users from the UK are active on dark web, looking for images of sexual abuse.
The IWF works to remove images and videos of child sexual abuse. Whilst only 0.04% of content is hosted within the UK, the demand for such content is significant.
The conference is jointly organised by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Child Dignity Alliance and the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities and is in continuity with the World Congress on “Child Dignity in the Digital World”.