Ernie Allen © Vimeo / Center On Sexual Exploitation

Interview with Ernie Allen: Begin a “global effort” to protect the dignity of children

President of WePROTECT Global Alliance

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“Our hope is that Pope Francis’ call to action this week will raise and wake up the people everywhere and that a truly global effort will begin to protect the dignity of the children of the world.”

These are the exclusive statements to Zenit of Ernie Allen, President of the We PROTECT Global Alliance. Allen, an American lawyer, is also a member of the Child Dignity Alliance Committee.

The purpose of the Child Dignity Alliance is to fulfill the objectives of the Rome Declaration, spreading knowledge and promoting sensitization on the exploitation and sexual abuse of children through inter-religious collaboration and research.

WePROTECT Global Alliance is an International Movement dedicated to national and global action, to put an end to online sexual exploitation of children.

Digital Child Dignity

 Ernie Allen is in Rome these days to take part in an International and Inter-Religious Conference on Promoting Digital Child Dignity–– From Concept to Action, in the course of which initiatives to be implemented will be analyzed to protect, effectively, the dignity of minors worldwide.

Therefore, on November 14-15, 2019, this event will gather religious leaders, civil authorities and representatives of large technology companies in the Vatican.

The Conference is the fruit of collaboration between the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Child Dignity Alliance and the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities.

 In addition to taking part in the organization of the meeting, Ernie Allen is the former Director-General  of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the United States and the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC); thus he is an expert in this problem and in the defense of children’s dignity.

Here is the complete interview with Ernie Allen regarding the situation of the abuse of children in the world and the meeting Promoting Digital Child Dignity – From Concept to Action.

ZENIT: Due to lack of knowledge and awareness, nowadays average citizens could think that child abuse, exploitation, trafficking or torture is not that common or that it happens mostly in impoverished countries. Given your experience as Child Dignity Alliance Board member, WeProtect chairman and former president and CEO of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), could you point out a worldwide overview of these problems in this digital era?

I intend to open my remarks on Wednesday with two quotes:

At the 2017 World Congress held here at the Vatican, Pope Francis said, “We rightly wonder if we are capable of guiding the processes we ourselves have set in motion, whether they might be escaping our grasp, and whether we are doing enough to keep them in check.”

A few weeks ago the New York Times wrote, “Twenty years ago, online images were a problem; 10 years ago, an epidemic.  Now, the crisis is at a breaking point.”

This is not just a problem in the developing world, and it is not just a problem in the Global North.  Last year, the National Center in the US handled 18 million reports of online child sexual exploitation.  These reports came from around the world and involved 45 million images of children being sexually abused.

The Internet Watch Foundation in the UK reported that 1/3 of child sexual abuse images were of the most serious kind, including involving the rape or torture of children.

Each image is a crime-scene photo.  In each image, there is a child victim somewhere in the world.  But the premise of your question is exactly right.  This is a problem that the vast majority of people in every country do not see and do not understand.  These children are hidden victims.

The data we have to measure it are inadequate.  That is because in the vast majority of these incidents, the child does not report.  The child does not tell anybody.  Overwhelmingly, the perpetrators are those close to the child in some way; i.e., family, friends, neighbors, someone with legitimate access.  Children feel that they cannot come forward, and suffer in silence.

We are trying to build a global response.  As you note I am the Chair of the WePROTECT Global Alliance, whose founding members are the UK, EU, and the US.  Today, 90 countries are members of WePROTECT, including Spain, and we are working tirelessly to awaken global leaders to this problem and take action.  Our Global Summit will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in December in partnership with the African Union.  I am proud that there 90 countries that have committed to and joined WePROTECT.  But there ought to be 190.

That is why the leadership of Pope Francis is so important.  His willingness to bring this extraordinary group together to look for real action and real solutions can change the way the world recognizes and responds to this problem.  In Rome this week we will have representatives of major technology companies, leaders of the world’s major faiths, policy leaders like the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, and others.  It is a dialogue about the nature and extent of this problem and how we can work together to end it.  It is just a beginning but our commitment is that this will be more than just another conference.

ZENIT: This event is focused on action plans in order to help diminish these realities and it is planned that you preside the third session called “Action from policymakers”, what do you expect from this session and also from all the work you are about to begin?

It is a very important session.  There are important discussions underway right now in the EU and other settings regarding how best to address the unintended consequences of the continuing evolution of technology.  We are pro-internet and pro-technology.  These technologies have changed the world, overwhelmingly for the better.  But we have to anticipate the harms that are done and address them.

It will be an exciting discussion.  Obviously, Mariya Gabriel, the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society will be at the center of these issues in the months ahead.  Her views and perspectives are critical.  We also have a Canadian banker who is an expert on money laundering, digital currencies, etc., all of which relate directly to our discussion.  We have the newly appointed Minister in the Italian government for Innovation Technology and Digitalization.  She will be encountering and confronting these issues directly.  We have a world leader in the fight against human trafficking, an insidious criminal activity that has increasingly migrated from the streets to the internet.  And we have the new President of the Vatican Tribunal, a world-renowned anti-mafia prosecutor who has confronted these kinds of challenges in the past with courage and tenacity.  I think it will be an extraordinary conversation and hopefully, one that can chart a course for us to move forward.

ZENIT: “Promoting Digital Child Dignity – From Concept to Action” provides continuity to two previous events, the World Congress on “Child Dignity in the Digital World” (2017) and the “Interreligious Conference of the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities: Child Dignity Online” (2018)”, could you reflect on the importance of these interreligious and international encounters in this issue?

In 2017 we convened the World Congress and created the Declaration of Rome.  We presented the Declaration to Pope Francis.  Following that we created, at the Vatican, the Child Dignity Alliance, a “coalition of the willing” and created working groups to increase global awareness, undertake research to better define and quantify the problem, focus on primary prevention to keep these crimes from happening in the first place, mobilize technology industry involvement and support, and address the growing problem of younger and younger children accessing “adult” content, including online pornography, increasingly via mobile devices.  For generations, society has imposed barriers in the physical world to limit the access of children to this kind of content.  We need to figure out how to do that in a digital world.

One of the goals of the Declaration of Rome was to mobilize the involvement of people of faith around the world. 85% of the people on the planet today are members of a religion.  Our view was that if we could alert them and involve them, what more powerful way would there be to engage communities and create grassroots action?  Our vision was to create dialogue on these issues in every church, mosque, synagogue, temple, ashram and other places of worship around the world.

The United Arab Emirates participated in that first World Congress and committed to take the lead.  Thus, last November 2018 in Abu Dhabi we held the first Interfaith Dialogue and created the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities.  Leaders from that Alliance will join us in Rome this week and are fully committed to our goals.

ZENIT: Lastly, we would like you to suggest how we, individual citizens, can contribute in order to protect child dignity. Is there something we could do that maybe we are not aware of?

First, become informed and aware.  Second, advocate to elected officials and policymakers.  Officials have a lot to worry about these days, but we believe that child protection in the digital world needs to be on their priority lists.  This is not just a problem somewhere else on the other side of the world.  This is a problem in everyone’s community and overwhelmingly it is one that our communities do not yet see or understand.

Our hope is that Pope Francis’s call to action this week will rouse and awaken people everywhere, and begin a truly global effort to protect the dignity of the world’s children.

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