Vatican congress reignites public, private, faith sectors to tackle child sexual abuse online   

Jacqueline Beauchere, Global Digital Safety Advocate

Building on commitments made in 2017 and 2018, global experts from the private, public and faith-based sectors met in Rome last week to reaffirm their pledges to combat online child sexual abuse.

Promoting Digital Child Dignity: From Concept to Action was sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Child Dignity Alliance and the government of the United Arab Emirates.

The event opened on November 14 with a stirring speech from Pope Francis. While commending the educational and personal growth opportunities that technology affords young people today, Pope Francis challenged those present to protect the world’s youth from “unacceptable criminal violence or grave harm to the integrity of their body and spirit.” He called for a “global movement” marked by the “deepest commitment of the human family and international institutions to protecting the dignity of minors and every human person.”

On day two, 80 representatives from technology companies, civil society, academia, government and the faith sector responded with six renewed commitments to advance the dialogue and focus on action:

  1. To raise awareness of digital risks and make prevention the top priority
  2. To undertake new social research to better understand the scope and severity of child sexual abuse and exploitation online
  3. To foster collaboration with technology companies
  4. To mobilize the world’s great religions to launch a global movement to protect children online
  5. To promote exchange of experiences in the provision of child rescue and treatment services
  6. To promote appropriate legislation and executive measures

Building on commitments from the 2017 congress

The outcomes of this latest congress advance those of the 2017 event, sponsored by the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in partnership with the WePROTECT Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online and Telefono Azzurro, Italy’s first helpline for children at risk. Two years ago, 150 international experts from various disciplines and organizations presented The Declaration of Rome to Pope Francis, pledging to protect children and young people in the digital age. The declaration called on technology companies to “commit to the development and implementation of tools and technologies to attack the proliferation of sex abuse images on the internet and to interdict the redistribution of the images of identified child victims.”

For the third straight year, I’ve had the privilege of addressing this group(above photo), sharing Microsoft’s long-standing and ongoing commitment to protecting children and, indeed, all individuals online. Each year, I highlight the company’s ongoing contributions to the fight against the online proliferation of child sexual exploitation and abuse imagery, which began in earnest in 2003.

As global citizens, we at Microsoft believe that eradicating the online creation and distribution of this abhorrent material is a universal call to action. To achieve noticeable impact, it requires a whole-of-society approach because no one entity or organization can stamp out this vile imagery on its own. As mentioned by numerous speakers at this year’s congress: Everyone has a role to play.

Microsoft’s child online protection strategy features a four-pronged approach: our own technology innovation and investments; internal governance; collaboration with others in industry, civil society, academia and government; and awareness-raising and education among all stakeholders.

Highlighting progress since the 2017 congress, I focused this year’s remarks on a Microsoft-led, cross-industry effort to develop technology to detect potential instances of child online grooming for sexual purposes. Grooming takes place when someone builds an emotional connection with a child in order to gain the child’s trust for sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking. By focusing on developing technology that can flag potential instances of grooming, there is a hope of interdicting on behalf of children and young people before any abuse or exploitation may begin. For more information about the technique being developed in cooperation with others, see this post.

A need for strategies that encourage digital civility – in 2020 and beyond

I was also able to share the company’s commitment to fostering digital civility – safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions among all people. Indeed, creating “the web we want” will take time, money, energy and effort from all involved. As a collective, we need compelling strategies to help protect young people from strangers and also from themselves online. How they conduct themselves, what they share, and how and with whom they share are all areas where young people can benefit from our advice and guidance. As teachers, civil society and technology leaders, government, clergy, parents and concerned adults, we need to inform and educate young people about online risks and harms. They need to be counseled that fun and socializing online in the here and now are important, but chasing “likes” and “followers” at any cost can be hurtful and even detrimental.

We need to invest in digital literacy, digital ethics and digital etiquette in our classrooms and in our homes to ensure that young people gain and maintain perspective, build their resilience to face head-on the challenges and pressures of everyday life online, and we need equip them with the ability to exercise good judgment and long-term, critical thinking.

The 2020s are right around the corner – a new year and a new decade. As part of Microsoft’s now four-year body of research into digital civility, we’ll be releasing predictions from teens and adults about their hopes for online life in the coming decade. Look for these prognostications from respondents in 25 countries early next year. Meanwhile, our latest Digital Civility Index will be announced on international Safer Internet Day 2020, February 11.

To read more about the Pope’s address, visit the Vatican website. To learn what Microsoft is doing to foster digital civility, check out our webpage:; and for more about safety online generally, go to

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