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Sunday 22 October 2017

Pope Francis urges crackdown on 'extreme pornography' and 'sextortion'

Pope Francis during an engagement in the Vatican (AP)
Pope Francis during an engagement in the Vatican (AP)

Pope Francis on Friday denounced the proliferation of adult and child pornography on the internet and demanded better protections for children online.

It came even as the Vatican confronts its own cross-border child porn investigation involving a top papal envoy.

Francis met with participants of a Catholic Church-backed international conference on fighting child pornography and protecting children in the digital age.

He fully backed their proposals to toughen sanctions against those who abuse and exploit children online and improve technological filters to prevent young people from accessing porn online.

Francis said the Catholic Church knew well the "grave error" of trying to conceal the problem of sexual abuse, a reference to the church's long history of having priests who rape and molest children and bishops who cover up for them.

Several well-known cases have involved priests having child porn, or photographing their victims.

Francis said an international, cross-disciplinary approach was needed to protect children from the dark net and the "corruption of their minds and violence against their bodies".

Using terms that are certainly new to papal lexicon, Francis denounced "extreme pornography" on the web that adults, and increasingly children consume, and the increasing use of "sexting" and "sextortion" among the estimated 800 million minors who navigate the internet.

"We would be seriously deluding ourselves were we to think that a society where an abnormal consumption of internet sex is rampant among adults could be capable of effectively protecting minors," he said.

The conference was planned some two years ago, but it unfolded precisely at the time when the Vatican is facing back-to-back child sex scandals: One of Francis' top advisers, Cardinal George Pell, recently took leave to face old abuse charges in his native Australia, while in August the Vatican recalled a senior diplomat from its embassy in Washington who got embroiled in a child porn investigation.

Canadian police have issued an arrest warrant for Monsignor Carlo Capella, accusing him of accessing, possessing and distributing child pornography during a visit to an Ontario church over Christmas.

He is now in the Vatican, where prosecutors have opened an investigation.

The Vatican in 2013 criminalised child porn possession, distribution and production, with sanctions varying from up to two years and a 10,000-euro fine to 12 years and a 250,000-euro fine.

Francis said he wanted people to remember that children look to adults, with light in their eyes and trust in their heart, to protect them.

"What are we doing to make sure they are not robbed of this light, to ensure that those eyes will not be darkened and corrupted by what they will find on the internet?"

The Pontifical Gregorian University drew plaudits for hosting the conference and bringing together a remarkable spectrum of specialists to discuss a little-reported issue.

Victims' advocates and other groups nevertheless pointed to the church's many cases of priests convicted of having child porn, and church authorities who covered up for them.

"It is astonishing that those problems were not only swept under the rug at this conference, but treated as qualifications for sponsoring the event," said Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability, an online resource of the abuse scandal.

The victims group SNAP concurred: "The Vatican should not be leading this summit. They should be the target of this summit."

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