The past weeks a meeting was held in the Vatican to address the serious problem of child abuse by the clergy. In the Church the most significant problem is the abuse of adolescents, what in technical terms is called ephebophilia. Father Fortunato di Noto is at the forefront of the battle against child abuse, a voice informed about the vastness, gravity and consistency of this phenomenon.
Father, can you tell us about your background?
I have been a Catholic priest since 1991. I carry out my ministry as parish priest in a suburban parish (I am also Vicar Foraneo of the city of Avola and Episcopal Vicar and Director of the fragility and the social problems bureau of the Diocese of Noto, in Sicily). I love the priesthood and being on the side of the children, of the little ones is a peculiarity of the Gospel call. A true mandate of Jesus in the Church.
What is the Meter Association that you founded?
Meter onlus (www.associazionemeter.org) is an association that has been dealing with the defense and protection of minors against all forms of abuse for about 30 years. A specific, pioneering activity is the fight against the criminal plague of online child pornography in the world. The mission is also training, prevention of abuses, and projects, if they ask us, all over the world for the promotion and culture of respect for children (in the dioceses, in the parishes, in society).
How it is possible that a horrible thing like abusing minors can even happen?
Abuse (with attention to sexual abuse) is one of the forms of criminal perversion that is so subtle, refined, elaborate and devastating that it is sometimes almost impossible to describe and witness it. Abuse of the pedophile kind affects prepubescent children (aged 12 to 13 years) and abuse on newborns is dramatic. A lucid and conscious perversion.
Can those guilty of these abuses be cured?
In Italy, the law has expressed an important and clarifying judgment: “It is not a mental illness by virtue of which pedophiles can get a penalty discount” (judgment 12/11/2003 No. 43135). The pedophile cannot be called a sick person – he is lucid, aware of the acts he does towards the minors. It’s difficult. For several reasons: we must identify them, make them aware (but they tend to believe that they do not harm children), if they accept it takes a long-term therapeutic plan. The possibility that they will commit the same acts again is very high. A long path, and hard. In the collective imagination, the pedophile is a monster, a recognizable individual among many: in reality it is usually a common person, aesthetically cured and often with a good social position, unsuspected and usually very close to the child, who can swing from figure of the father, the mother, the uncle, the grandfather, the neighbor or in any case a subject who has won the trust of the child. The pedophile is most often male and has a strong sexual attraction towards prepubescent children, i.e. between the ages of zero and thirteen. This type of attraction sometimes remains latent for a long time and can be triggered by random events or situations such as coming into close contact with the child, smelling the skin, seeing ambiguous photographs, touching the child in a particular way or meeting people who have had sexual experiences with minors and they talk about their experiences in a very positive way. Regardless of the causes that lead an adult to be attracted to a child, the type of therapy that can be used does not always lead to a resolution, especially due to the lack of cooperation from the pedophile. Psychotherapy often clashes with the issue that the pedophile does not admit he has a problem, he is not willing to change. Pharmacological therapy has reported few results, as psychological factors have a considerable weight in determining the behavior of the pedophile.
How has the internet changed this problem?
The internet, which is never to be demonized, has connected users, ensuring the anonymity and dissemination of pornographic material, after the child abuse has already occurred. Suffice it to say that Meter has reported worldwide and from all over the world more than 30 million photos and videos (corresponding to more than 20 million children involved). A real drama that it feeds on is silence and complicity. Only in 2017 Meter reported 502 links with 4,292 photos and 4,412 videos involving children 2 years and below. The data that we report are all documented because they are officially reported to the Italian Postal Police, but also to other Police in the world (to name a few: New Zealand, France, Germany, USA). A horror, like that one on other minors. Other numbers from the 2017 Meter Report: over two million photos and almost one million videos (quintupled compared to 2016) reported to the competent police, which represent dramatic stories of abuse and violence against even very small children, of which many authorities are not the least aware.
The grooming, abuse, production, dissemination and purchase of pedophile and child pornography is a growing business also managed by organized crime. The silence and connivance of the giants of the web is disturbing and many countries still do not have specific legislation and do not cooperate against these crimes.
In 2017 the association reported 2,196,470 of photos against 1,946,898 in 2016. The videos, however, have increased fivefold: from 203,047 in 2016 to 985,006 last year. The most involved victims are in the 8/12 age group (12.120 links, 1,494,252 photos and 836,868 videos), followed by the 3/7 age bracket (4,666 links, 685,610 photos and 140,532 videos) and finally, given already said, 0/2 years (503 links, 4,292 photos and 4,412 videos). In about 43 nations.
What is the dimension of this phenomenon in the Church?
The Church in recent years has made and still walks a path of clarity, purification and zero tolerance. There is still a long way to go. Abuses are abuses, from anywhere and by whomever they are made. The serious problem, and we all know it, is the very high percentage of sexual abuse by priests / religious (and also by nuns) with marked homosexual tendencies. There are many declarations, never denied, in this regard. Abuse with children over 14 years of age. Pedophile acts, even if a lower percentage, are just as serious and unacceptable. Even if there was only one, it’s serious. A shame that has clouded the good that thousands of priests, religious and nuns have done towards the little ones and the unwanted of the world.
Do you think that today it is a less strong phenomenon than in the past?
Good prevention, careful training and knowledge of the problem can prevent abuse. If we stick to the formal complaints (not considering those that are never reported, which remain silent) throughout the world it is very serious and very extensive. Giving numbers on the phenomenon is difficult.
Are there areas in the world where the phenomenon is most devastating?
All areas. It is not a geographical problem. It’s a global phenomenon that does not spare anyone. It is devastating to violate only one child. What is more serious than violating a newborn? Helpless, without absolute defenses?
Do you know the situation of this problem in Asia?
Several times we have reported, after having found them, videos and photos with thousands of children abused in that continent. Greater collaboration is required. It would be enough to have working email addresses of the various police involved, to stop the phenomenon. In 2017 Meter reported a series of web portals with thousands of photos and child porn videos. Some figures – Asia: Hong Kong (7), British Indian Ocean (British territories in the Indian Ocean (6), Japan (3). Meter in the past few years has been contacted for a series of information for the drafting of the law in Japan.
The bishops have met at the Vatican to address this problem. What do you think are the measures to be taken?
Many years ago I declared that a global phenomenon is answered with global actions. The Church already offers guidelines and procedures to be applied in a complex reality (just think of the cultural diversity in the various continents and the perception of the problem itself). We are aware that it will never be possible to eliminate abuses 100%. But a new, more responsible and conscious journey has begun.
The Church must listen to the victims, they can give us fundamental contributions that are worth more than a scientific treaty. Zero tolerance, acting in training, information and prevention. Permanent, non-occasional actions. In the diocese, the setting up of pastoral offices dedicated to the protection of minors (a structured pastoral care of children) is of fundamental importance, because being on the side of children is not a fashion but a permanent commitment of the Church (Saint Paul VI said so). Meter is available to contribute, with its thirty years of experience, to bring all of its expertise and professionalism to the field. I cannot fail to mention that the commitment is not only of the Church but of the whole society and I would also add other religious confessions that must commit themselves more and more to putting children, their rights and their protection as persons in the first place. Together we can do it.
On 5 May 2019 Meter will celebrate the 23rd Children Victim Day against pedophilia and child abuse. It was the first World Day that was conceived. Why not join and promote it?
(For more information on Meter www.associazionemeter.org or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)