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Webs of Harm? Online child sexual abuse and theologies of the digital

This paper explores the escalating reality of online child sexual abuse in our world and the pressure on faith actors to respond effectively. It argues that faith actors must be equipped for both social and spiritual roles if they are to disrupt harm and create safe spaces

Published onApr 16, 2021
Webs of Harm? Online child sexual abuse and theologies of the digital
  1. Introduction

Despite all the many benefits that the digital era has brought into many human lives in the last few decades, there is a darker side to its realities. Digital technologies play an increasing role in constructing ‘webs of harm’ - virtual realities that are frequently abusive and exploitative of other human beings, such as through cyberbullying or the online sexual abuse or exploitation of women and/or children. This paper focuses on one specific escalating example of this ‘web of harm’ – namely online child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSEA), an increasing global concern in today’s world. Child sexual abuse and exploitation offline has been the subject of increasing concern by many faith leaders around the world in recent years, especially in the light of damaging public revelations from within faith communities themselves, particularly, but not only, the Catholic church, as harbouring unaccountable sexual perpetrators, being havens of institutional abuse, and failing to safeguard the children in their care. In the light of these disturbing realities, churches around the world have been confronted with this spiritual and social failure and are asking how to respond in ways that ‘do no harm’ for the future. Research shows that much ongoing sexual abuse of adults began when they were children. However, the online aspects of child sexual abuse and exploitation often still remain hidden despite statistics that show that this area of abuse has rapidly grown and expanded in the last decade.1 A survey of 124 faith leaders from seven major faiths (54% were Christian) across 29 countries carried out by the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities in 20182 highlighted that faith leaders feel ill equipped to engage with online CSEA despite a strong consensus that faith spaces can, and should be, platforms for its prevention.

The rapid rise of online CSEA alongside offline forms is increasingly documented as a harmful reality and a global concern as the 40-country study entitled ‘Out of the Shadows’ shines a light on3. The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and social responses to it have led to a much larger number of children being online for longer period, including very young children, with risks of online CSEA dramatically increasing as a result. This online presence is increasingly in unsupervised ways due to parents being put in positions of unofficial home-schooling whilst also trying to work from home themselves. Tech companies themselves are recognising these dangers and the #WeProtect alliance4 seeks multi-sectoral collaborations to end online CSEA. Faith communities are increasingly seen to have a role to play here too.

This paper explores how faith leaders can to play a part alongside others in disrupting these digital webs of harm. While some important work has taken place to utilise the access and social influence that many faith leaders have, not enough attention has been paid to date to the spiritual capital which they may bring, in both positive and negative ways, to this task. Recent research has challenged local faith actors who are seeking to end violence against children to engage more deeply with its spiritual capital as a theological task.5 This paper asks questions about the unique roles that faith leaders can play to disrupt and reconfigure underlying theologies and beliefs that can contribute towards webs of harm in the light of online CSEA. It offers some contours for engaging with key theological beliefs within the Christian tradition in ways that can nurture more emancipatory, liberating theologies within online spaces. Increasingly harmful social norms, often shaped by underlying beliefs, are recognised as playing a key role in the deformed relationships that underpin some forms of violence against children. These relational distortions must be acknowledged, brought out of the shadows and transformed if they are not to underpin the continued silencing of these ‘webs of harm’ for children within their digital realities.

  1. When reality does harm - online child sexual abuse and exploitation

Child sexual abuse is a worldwide problem with estimates suggesting that up to 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys will have experienced contact sexual abuse by the age of 18. Lack of reporting means that it often remains in the shadows6. However online child sexual abuse and exploitation (exploitation includes where a perceived benefit is received in return) is even more hidden from view. The organisation End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) highlights that the volume and scale of online child sexual abuse material has reached unprecedented levels. For example, in 2014, INHOPE, the association of INTERNET hotlines, assessed that 83,644 URLS containing child sexual abuse material exist worldwide, a 64% increase from the year before. The National Centre for missing and exploited children’s Cybertipline has received more than 70 million reports of online child sexual abuse since 1998, with their figures showing a rapid escalation of this abuse in the last decade. Child abuse material is also being circulated by offenders through hidden platforms, such as peer to peer file sharing networks. the ‘Dark Net’ or encrypted software. This shows the darker reality of the technological revolution:

Although information and communication technologies (ICTs) are an important and positive component of modern life, their rapid expansion is making more children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation. The swift evolution of technology is leading to a terrifying growth in online child sexual abuse material as well as new emerging threats to children.7

Reports of online CSEA are increasingly being seen as an inevitable consequence of more countries gaining broadband access. A National Centre in the USA seizes 480, 789 online CSEA images per week. Research by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection suggests that the vast majority of these images are of children under 12 (78%) with over half of these images of children under 8. Over 80% of these images are of girls and only 20% of boys - showcasing the highly gendered realities of online CSEA.8 The same children are often seen in multiple images over time, suggesting a pattern of continued abuse. As a result, organisations such as Thorn are insisting that all sectors of society must take steps to open up hard conversations about this reality. If they do not, abuse and injustice will continue in hidden forms where perpetrators often remain invisible, even if the majority are extended family, guardians or trusted adults known to the child. This reality makes reporting even more unlikely as children are groomed by adults they trust not to understand what is happening as abuse.

ECPAT highlights five main types of online child sexual abuse and exploitation prolific in our digital realities; sexual extortion, online live child sexual abuse (CSA), sexting, online grooming for offline abuse or trafficking and digital CSA materials, (often labelled as pornography). Their factsheets on these areas demonstrate increased understanding about why and how each of these types are enabled, and how they can create patterns where children are involved and then blackmailed into silence (e.g. sexting) or where parents can be involved in enabling sexual exploitation (using live webcams) as well as patterns adopted by perpetrators which if better understood by all, can be noted and disrupted by multiple actors, including faith communities if they are educated, capacitated and supported. While stereotypes of evil paedophile rings and gangs of traffickers often still predominate in our media-infused imaginaries, these often misrepresent the disturbing reality that online CSEA (like its offline forms) is far more likely to be perpetrated and/or facilitated by someone that the child knows and trusts. ECPAT call this reality the ‘circle of trust’. This means that faith communities, such as church congregations, schools and orphanages are automatically high risk spaces as they often work in closed regular settings with vulnerable children, with a high level of trust from communities, families and children. In online CSEA, extended family members are also often directly involved. Online child sexual abuse cannot be detached from either offline forms or from other forms of abuse and violence. This was highlighted by a faith leader working on child protection issues at community level who notes:

Child sexual abuse does not exist in a vacuum, kids who are sexually abused are often abused in other ways. There is a tremendous intersection with other kinds of violence. It becomes a baseline for conversation while looking at the broader spectrum9

ECPAT highlights that as part of the online grooming process, perpetrators can make payments to children to gain their trust and/or convince them to share material of a sexual nature of themselves. Or, as part of financially driven (sexual) extortion, after obtaining compromising photos or videos of a sexual nature, they can pressure the victim into paying amounts of money by threatening to disclose the images on the Internet or saying they will send it to the child’s peers or relatives if he/she does not pay. Some offenders use multi-user gaming platforms to access children and become virtual ‘friends’ and then ‘progressively sexualise the interaction.’10

While technology companies are under increased pressure to prevent these patterns, this is not something they can resolve on their own. Techniques such as blocking, online safety report tools, and splash pages urging perpetrators to seek help and support for behaviour change have some effect but also potentially send this activity further underground. Collaborative partnerships are required with all sectors of society, particularly those with long-term trusted relationships with children and their families. The gendered realities of abuse must also be acknowledged, with men overwhelmingly identified as the perpetrators (only 3% are estimated to be women), and with girls the predominant targets. However, boys are also victims and evidence is emerging of female involvement in enabling online abuse and exploitation, sometimes for financial gain.11 An intersectional approach to gender dynamics is required here that addresses all genders and ages at and looks critically the roles that many stakeholders play.

Patterns such as live-streaming children who are involved in sexualised acts are often underpinned by underlying structural realities of socio-economic poverty and the relative low cost of producing and viewing this material. The Philippines has been identified by ECPAT as a hub for this specific type of online abuse where many involved adults do not see it as ‘real’ abuse because of its virtual dimensions. Social norms constructed around this can make it hard for children to report or even perceive what they are doing as abuse. Faith leaders in settings like this hold significant power and influence and yet often fail to speak about this harmful reality, seeing sex and sexuality as taboo. It is to the connection between online CSEA and faith actors that this paper now turns.

  1. Online child sexual abuse & exploitation and faith

Public revelations around the sexual abuse of children by faith actors, for example within Catholic spaces in Ireland and the USA, and around the Salvation Army in Australia are just two prominent public examples which form the tip of a larger iceberg of sexual abuse seen as still sitting beneath the surface. The speaking out by sexual survivors of charismatic Christian leaders such as Pentecostal minister Ravi Zachariah, and Catholic priest Jean Vanier are only coming to light after their deaths and are forcing the ministries in their name into more in-depth theological reflection as well as legal investigation. Many faith communities around the world are increasingly being required to confront their historical perpetration, complicity, silence and failure to act to safeguard children in their care from sexual abuse. Confession and confrontation of this difficult reality, must surely be the starting point for any transformational engagement, and not merely a defensive presentation by faith communities of only many positive examples of church involvement in child protection which also exist.

The ambiguous role of churches on this topic is highlighted in a study done for UK faith-based organisation Tearfund on sexual violence in South Africa (Le Roux 2013), where survivors across multiple communities highlighted how inadequate the churches response currently was to sexual violence. It was noted that faith leaders were at times perpetrators who were not held to account which meant the church failed to be a safe refuge for survivors:

The church is an anchor for the community, it is their refuge, it is actually the only refuge in the world that we are now living in, and if the church have such things going on, the pastor sits on the internet the whole night and looks at pornography, and Sunday morning he preaches so he gets his salary, who will then be interested in the church, because I mean, there are no examples12

A 2019 research study on violence against children and faith identified sexual violence against children as the second largest concern in faith settings by child protection experts interviewed across diverse faith communities with sexual violence forming 20% of all direct perpetration reported in the literature stage.13 This took a number of forms. First, child sexual abuse within religious institutions of care and education, but also within families of congregants. Second, commercial sexual exploitation and child trafficking, especially in Asian contexts. Third harmful practices, such as forced and child marriage, female genital mutilation, often tied into religious and cultural justifications. A concern was expressed that in a focus on girls only, the vulnerabilities of boys to sexual abuse could be overlooked.

This study also highlighted the need to better understand and engage with hidden and emerging forms of violence against children, such as its online and digital forms, in order to effectively prevent it within their own institutions and beyond. For example, one Buddhist expert in Thailand interviewed, noted: “…for example, there are so many monks using Facebook sometimes they can use Facebook to get children to come in for sexual things.”14 Parents and faith communities were often not equipped to respond to these new threats and believed unhelpful myths. Sexual abuse by individual religious leaders was a main issue raised by experts interviewed, as was sexual abuse within religious institutions, often connected to residential care and education. Religious leaders, staff and volunteers were seen to hold special coercive power over children they interacted with because of their perceived spiritual and social authority and trust. Religious spaces for care and education were often potential ’havens’ for abusers, targeted due to providing easy, trusted access to children. Historically, religious institutions have at times also been exempt from enforcing minimum standards of care, due to their voluntary or spiritual nature. Sexual abuse often remains silenced and hidden and religious institutions were identified as using their spiritual power in both positive and negative ways. A disconnect was often seen between what is preached and what is practised. In the light of the #metoo campaign, further media coverage and legal evidence is still emerging of historical perpetration of sexual abuse as well as complicity in covering up abuse allegations by religious leaders and institutions. A failure to respond to abuse happening to children within families, was also noted with faith leaders aware, but often not equipped, to engage effectively as first responders. Another dimension of concern was a rise in child sexual abuse images, both involving and targeting children, but also by children being increasingly exposed to explicit sexual imagery in public spaces at young ages especially through its online dimensions.

As a result of these concerns, certain faith-based organizations have come together in the last few years to focus more attention on faith and online CSEA. In 2016 ECPAT collaborated with Religions for Peace to develop a manual for faith leaders around responding to online CSEA. Since 2014, Arigatou International (as a member of the WeProtect Global Alliance), has intentionally engaged with diverse faith communities to help protect children from online CSEA. They have led the adoption of the 2017 Panama Declaration on ending violence against children, supported the organization of a 2018 Child Dignity in the Digital World Forum in Abu Dhabi and co-led regional interfaith workshops and a survey with over 124 faith leaders across 7 major faiths on this theme. This work highlights strong support for the idea that places of worship and faith gathering should be used as platforms for the prevention on online CSEA but highlighted that currently faith actors are not equipped to do so and that further engagement is needed to tackle this sensitive area leading to the development of a global interfaith alliance on this issue.15 At the same time, UNICEF has pioneered the Disrupting Harm and Global Kids Online projects which insist on the importance of centring the voices of children to avoid fear-based parental protective mechanisms around sex and sexuality often shaped by religious and cultural norms that can ignore child agency and reinforce harm, e.g. by marrying daughters off early. This is an important insight for faith actors to consider.

During the 2018 Abu Dhabi Forum, Father Hans Zollner, from the Centre for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University, noted that there was an urgent need to better identify effective child safeguarding measures both online and offline noting, “When you talk about safeguarding, everybody wants to improve children’s situations but scientifically, until this day, we don’t know what really works better.”16 Faith communities still need to learn more about what works in order to ensure that they do not ‘do further harm’ by responding inappropriately and they need to learn from practices and ideas emerging from other sectors. Studies by Arigatou International in 2019 also point to important common ground between child rights, ending child violence and core religious beliefs.17 Since 2006 onwards, many faith actors have mobilised internationally to reflect on their roles in ending violence against children. The 2017 Panama Declaration, signed by diverse religious leaders from around the world, committed their religions to play an active role in ending all forms of child violence . A focus on online CSEA must build on those global commitments to make them locally embedded realities.

4. Tackling online child sexual abuse and exploitation - faith in action

Faith communities remain a predominantly untapped resource to prevent and deter online CSEA, given their unique access to more than three quarters of the world’s population, their strong influence in shaping social norms and behaviours, and their status as highly trusted community actors in many regions. However, the disturbing revelations over the last decade by adults who were abused as children within their faith communities (often by faith leaders) also reveals the indisputable reality that spaces of faith have often been unaccountable places of abuse and silent complicity. Online CSEA takes place in all settings, including within faith communities. However, as faith spaces such as churches are also turning more and more to digitalized faith experiences for their followers, especially under COVID-19 and for young people, it is critical that faith actors are equipped and enabled to support safe digital experiences for children. According to Cornelius Williams, Associate Director of Child Protection at UNICEF:

Violence seriously jeopardizes children’s growth and development. Religious leaders and faith based communities are uniquely positioned to address violence in society and challenge social norms that are harmful to children, and promote positive, protective norms. UNICEF looks forward to continued collaboration with religious leaders and faith-based communities to harness each other’s strengths for a joint vision to protect children.18

Online CSEA is also not merely the responsibility of global organisations such as Interpol or of large tech companies. It requires collaboration across all sectors of society, including faith actors. It is also not something that happens far away across the globe. Its webs of harm reach across borders and boundaries and enter into all our local realities. For example, in 2017, a 29-year-old white male church youth leader based at the church just down the road from my own local congregation where I also worked as a youth leader, was accused of 47 online sexual abuse charges related to 7 boys aged between 12 and 17. He had posed as a young women online to secure sexual images and to then sexually blackmail boys across 9 church congregations and in local schools, whilst holding a trusted role as a church youth worker. He had begun as a church volunteer in 2012 and became a full-time employee in 2015. Only in 2019 when he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years have details of his online abuse become public including online child sexual abuse materials and online grooming of boys in his care through the use of ordinary social media tools such as Instagram and Whatsapp.19 This story offered a sobering reminder of the ubiquity of global ‘webs of harm’ in local faith communities and a responsibility by all of us who are faith leaders to ensure that staff, children, parents and volunteers are equipped to prevent and respond.

An opportunity exists here as many senior faith leaders are making formal public commitments to take action to stop the harm of online CSEA. This unique momentum needs to be built on to respond to a need for deeper understanding and capacity development in this area, to share promising practices and new ideas and to engage those faith leaders across the globe who are willing to learn and address this issue, as a positive way of starting to change other faith leaders for whom sexuality is still a taboo. Faith communities should always be safe spaces for children, online and offline; not safe spaces for perpetrators, where CSEA in online and offline forms is silenced and/or overlooked. This is an ethical and spiritual imperative and requires action to disrupt the chain of harm from online CSEA within local faith communities, as well as the ways in which it also contributes to grooming children for offline abuse.

Faith spaces are currently often a ‘mixed blessing’ in relation to ending violence against children.20 They can play a key role in safeguarding children or they can become complicit havens for abusers. They exercise significant influence in families and with parents and can play important roles in disrupting offenders’ pathways, and in recognising and referring children-at-risk. Many children spend significant time in faith spaces. As a result of COVID-19, many faith spaces are also developing online activities, creating additional risks on top of their existing failure to respond effectively to many forms of offline sexual violence. Palm and Le Roux point to empirical research carried out in 2013 regarding the complicit role of churches in sexual violence across six South African communities. They note that:

When asked to reflect on how their churches were responding to sexual violence, participants were unanimous: very little. This is seen as a result of churches not seeing sexual violence as an issue it should be addressing, as it is only concerned with so-called ‘higher’ matters, such as prayer and Bible reading. According to participants, churches do not take sexual violence seriously and do not apply the Bible contextually to the issue. Participants consistently spoke of the misogyny of churches and their theologies, their complicity not only in ignoring the reality and silencing those who speak out, but their own role in perpetration. According to the majority of participants, many church leaders were themselves guilty of perpetrating sexual violence. However, they remained unconfronted by wider church leadership because these perpetrators were persons with authority.21

Churches can only have credibility to address sexual violence within the wider community if they publicly confront and eradicate forms of sexual violence in their own congregations. This may require a paradigm shift in the mindset of how relationships between genders and between adults and children are spiritually understood. Entrenched beliefs around hierarchies, one-way respect, silence and obedience can be used to underpin and enable both online and offline patterns of abuse. Evidence shows that faith leaders often know of instances of child abuse in their congregations, but often fail to respond effectively. The risk is that a similar pattern may happen with online CSEA. Coordinated action is urgently needed to translate commitments made by faith leaders at global level around online CSEA, such as through the 2018 Abu Dhabi Declaration, to “commit to form and engage effectively in partnerships with leaders of every faith to address the religious implications of online child abuse and exploitation” (Commitment 4, Abu Dhabi Declaration) into targeted local strategies and interventions that do no harm and protect and nurture children with specific responsibilities for the most vulnerable children as a core faith mandate expanded to the digital realm. Faith actors cannot do this alone and need to be equipped to recognise and refer cases to other specialist services and work with the technical experience gained from policymakers, law enforcement and child-focused experts to ensure this violence stops.

Many senior faith leaders are accepting their ethical responsibility to protect children: they are perceived as safe spaces for the social/spiritual development of children and can be equipped as platforms for preventing online CSEA. However, currently these spaces may exacerbate risks of CSEA, offline and online, due to low levels of understanding. While faith actors can play important access roles as community gatekeepers, and hold significant social influence, one area that has been highlighted as in need of further attention is for specific faiths to engage their spiritual capital to reaffirm imperatives for protection, stand against the perpetration, enabling or silencing of online CSEA. This is required to both disrupt current chains of harmful beliefs, and at the same time to offer positive theological resources that can help to support developing child dignity within digital realities.

4.1 The Social Roles of Faith Leaders

A “Guide to Action for Religious Leaders and Communities to Protect Children from Online Sexual Exploitation” has been developed by ECPAT and Religions for Peace and launched at the Global Network of Religions for Children Panama Forum in 2017.22 It highlights important roles that faith actors can play in preventing online CSEA. Some of the useful suggestions it contains include:

Raising awareness. Faith leaders are often looked to for moral guidance and advice and must be comfortable discussing online CSEA issues, breaking taboos and opening up conversations about how their faith tradition views sexual abuse and exploitation online and offline to create awareness, disrupt perpetration and help to prevent children from becoming exploited or abused.

Empowering children to feel safe by creating a confidential, non-judgmental culture to encourage them to discuss issues around sexual abuse and exploitation, using targeted age-specific campaigns for children and simple child-friendly tools. This equips children to protect themselves and also helps tackle rather than reinforce their common internalised feelings and beliefs around guilt and shame.

Breaking the silence to take a lead in talking about this issue to avoid forms of complicity. Evidence strongly suggests that faith leaders must bring a strong message around ending the silence around sexual violence because it is often still a taboo. By opening up the conversation and educating followers about the dangers of exploitation, it encourages children and community members to report cases of exploitation and abuse and faith leaders can then report it. Faith groups can also help teach children and young people about online sexual exploitation and risks by creating safe dialogues during meetings or integrated in Sunday School programs.

Setting up a policy and advisory group for creating a child-safe faith environment, including the participation of children and families to discuss the risks of online sexual exploitation and develop a safeguarding policy. Training programs that highlight child protection standards for new volunteers are key and form a deterrent for potential perpetrators as does a Code of Conduct on how staff members and volunteers contact and communicate with children electronically and how they take photos of events with children, as well as setting standards for their own social media usage.

Recognising, reporting and referring all cases of sexual abuse rather than seeking to protect your faith community or members by hiding the issue and avoiding either formal reporting or going to the police. This can lead to entrenched patterns where abusers are moved within the system rather than reported externally which leads to more harm for more children.

Providing survivor support to help all boys and girls understand that violence and abuse against them and other children is always wrong and how to recognise and tell a trusted person (adult or peer) about any physical, sexual and emotional abuse, in both offline and online spaces. This can help children know that places of worship and religious institutions should be safe places. Telephone helplines for children directly are a key part of child protection services.

Engaging perpetrators. Leaders in faith communities may find themselves in situation where they must confront a colleague or member who is a sex offender or who is at risk of offending. To prevent further exploitation, they must report any criminal behaviour and support them to recognise their behaviour as abusive or potentially abusive and to seek help. It is important to remember that many perpetrators were also abused as children, creating a vicious cycle out of a failure to protect.

The above seven suggestions all offer helpful, practical ways for faith leaders seeking to navigate these digital realities of abuse and exploitation. However, they draw primarily on the social capital of faith actors and their trusted access to communities, families and children. While these are of course important contributions, recent scholars have stressed the need for faith leaders to also engage theologically with underlying spiritual beliefs and values if the root causes of many forms of violence against children are to be tackled with one child protection expert from Panama stating:

We need to involve faith leaders not only because they are influential but first and foremost because …in many cases, there are underlying beliefs and social norms and values that are somehow highlighted in or by the religious sector that need to be changed23

4.2 Nurturing theological ‘webs of life’ - the spiritual role of faith leaders

This paper concludes by reflecting briefly on this theological task and about what ‘spiritual capital’ can be brought to bear on the specific digital reality of online child sexual abuse and exploitation. Faith’s religious resources and mechanisms in the form of doctrines, practices, rituals, experiences and sacred structures can play an important role in the formation of protective norms, beliefs and attitudes about how children are seen and treated both online and offline. Faith communities should not just be instrumentalised to access wider communities and run programmes, but also need to nurture spiritual beliefs and values that protect and empower children and shape how children are seen by adults. Recent studies have shown that this often involves disrupting historical theologies and taboos that still underpin many existing patterns of violence and abuse for children24.

At the heart of Christian faith is a deep commitment to human flourishing and life in abundance for all, adults and children alike. The Christian story itself makes grand statements about our relational anthropology, our connectedness to the divine image, our sinful fall into distorted violent and patriarchal relationships, as well as incarnational claims about God’s entry into our human world as a vulnerable child who, as he grows up, places a vulnerable child at the centre of his vision of the kingdom of God and also as the touchstone of our adult moral behaviour. Online child sexual abuse and exploitation requires a deep confession of faith’s failure to embody these values of human dignity for all children within our digital world. Public theologians have worked in recent years with the concept of human dignity. However, without care these insights can hover above lived harmful realities as merely unrealistic, utopian abstractions. In reality, our world is shaped by hierarchical forms of dignity tied to status, power and position which also play out in the toxic power dynamics of online child sexual abuse and exploitation. If theologians are to speak meaningfully about human dignity for the most vulnerable, a cruciform theology of human dignity is required, which is situated at the foot of the cross of the current reality of online CSEA and at the places of pain in solidarity with all those children whose dignity is currently denied. Faith leaders who are also human rights activists such as Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jnr have insisted that we are all deeply connected in a web of mutuality and ‘ubuntu’ and must take seriously the ongoing ethical question – who is my neighbour? How can our relational anthropology and spiritual webs of interconnection be taken more seriously in our online spaces in ways engage healthily with our human embodiment? How can these online sins be better named by all faith leaders as real entanglements in digital webs of harm that deform and dehumanise vulnerable others as merely sexual objects?

The below image is one of a set of seven provocative child ‘crucifixions’ produced by Cuban photographer Erik Ravelo as part of a 2018 art project with Brazilian director/editor Daniel Ferreira which is entitled “Los Intocables (The Untouchables) — The Right to Childhood Should Be Protected."25 It depicts visually what this paper claims must be the starting point for genuine engagement with child sexual abuse by all faith actors, an honest open confession of the failure of many faith communities to protect the children in their care.

Los Intocables, a work by Erik Ravelo is one of the art installations topping the Controversial art list of all time. It "touches" too sensitive questions. controversial art Controversial Art: Los Intocables by Erik Ravelo Controversial art Los Intocables by Erik Ravelo artists I Lobo you5

If our theologies are to nurture webs of life about this issue, I want to suggest that three areas need to be carefully re-examined within churches to root out damaging myths and pattens of toxic theology that have been identified as causing harm to children. First, many Christian theologies about sexuality and gender) remain outdated, sex-negative, oppressive to women and can nurture deep patterns of hiding, silence, shame and guilt. We fail to ‘get real’ and connect to the serious questions of sexual harms in our world today by silencing conversations about people’s sexual desires, curiosity and fears as taboo. Marriage and procreation issues predominate in church narratives to the exclusion of sexual questions of pleasure, sexual diversity, loneliness, desire and consent. Churches are ill equipped to explore real questions of love in an online age of Tindr and inherit a sex-negative tradition that they often pass on to its younger generation who frequently quickly learn that sex is not something to be talked about honestly in church. These spiritual taboos around our God given sexuality can create damaging hidden, silenced spaces around sex and sexuality in faith-families and faith spaces that can indirectly drive children and adults to the internet to find out more, where they then encounter risks that they are not equipped to navigate safely. At the same time, the church’s long historical obsession with patriarchy, gendered sexual purity and virginal girls also reinforces a culture of oppressive gendered patterns of sexualization, male entitlement and body negativity that still need to be addressed. Feminist theologians have made important contributions here that need to be engaged in the spiritual formation of boys and girls from early on if a positive theology of sexuality and embodiment is to be offered in ways that are non-abusive. Religion is often part of forming a complicated set of social taboos about gender, sex and sexuality which can become a source of harmful beliefs. Engaging religious leaders to disentangle these taboos and speak out is important.

Second, developing liberating theologies of children that place the child at the centre of churches as needing to be both seen and heard are still urgently required.26 Children have not always been served well by religious precepts. The expression ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is an old English proverb dating from the 15th century and was recommended by religious leaders of the day and transported globally on colonial ships. This harmful legacy of quiet obedience by children who were expected to know their place, was often accompanied by religiously infused dictates that ‘to spare the rod would spoil the child’. Sexual violence in both online and offline forms, takes place primarily by people who are already within a child’s circle of trust. They reinforce their power by making children feel guilty or ashamed or by suggesting that this is something God allows. This is underpinned by a theology of the child which experts suggest form a root cause of violence which assigns children to an inferior position compared to adults, with fewer social rights and less legal protection. Experts identify this prevalent hierarchical belief as a root cause of many forms of violence against children and insist that faith communities must take responsibility for their role in indirectly perpetuating these norms and take steps to change this27.

The World Council of Churches has invited all its members to create local child friendly congregations that place child protection, participation and creation of a world fit for children as its centre (WCC, 2018). Spiritual rituals with children such as baptism, eucharist and confirmation can be used as places to reinforce these child-centred messages, religious messages and dogmas about silent obedience to family adults in the light of child abuse. Faith leaders must recognise that children’s perceived religious duties to ‘always honour your father and mother’ must never be interpreted in ways that become harmful. Family is often seen as ‘sacred’ in religious traditions, creating potentially unregulated spaces for abuse by parents or extended family and preventing reporting by others.

Third, faith leaders have access and influence not only to children but also to those who are perpetrators. They hold unique spiritual authority to speak about sin, to engage perpetrators for change and to break silence on these issues in ways that centre the safety, dignity and participation rights of children. Many faith communities still hold harmful theological beliefs about children and their badness, proper place or need for silence that can perpetuate violence. As a result, faith leaders can play an authoritative role in dismantling these beliefs that some violence is acceptable, or that children should be seen and not heard, or that unquestioning obedience to adults is required. However, to do this, faith leaders will have to reinterpret many stories within their sacred texts which treat children as disposable possessions of their parents and find new ways to read these stories with children to develop liberating theologies of the child and develop positive connections between child protection and faith that enables sacred text reflections on dignity, justice and peace with children involved as a central part of these reflections. Faith communities can help develop alternative religious and cultural rituals that do not endorse harmful practices but place the best interests of the child at the centre and change the hierarchical paradigm of adults over children:

The way that certain patriarchal religions conceive the world is that there is a hierarchy… someone at the top…in charge, they are punitive, powerful, in control and if you don’t do what they say you are going to get thumped in one way or another (cited in Palm 2019)

At the heart of reshaping the underlying attitudes and behaviours that often lie beneath patterns of violence against children, is making shift away from hierarchical relationships of fearful respect, ownership and power over children who are still often seen as second-class persons who are ‘less than’ adults to instead build trusting relationships of child nurture and growth. These can open up spaces for children to participate in families, communities and nations and enable them to speak up without fear of punishment or abuse. Ingrained notions of one-way respect and obedience shaped by religious and cultural scripts will need to be recalibrated to shape new patterns of mutual respect seeing and listening between adults and children within a shared container of doing no harm.

Faith traditions have the potential to nurture children’s voices and their active participation as part of developing spiritual responsibility as well as participatory intergenerational approach between adults and children, especially in families. However, much current religious engagement with children still revolves around spiritual requirements of passive, respectful behaviour. Social norms are a key factor underpinning social tolerance of, or silence around, violence against children, such as family-related sexual violence. These norms and silences can act as a major factor in the ongoing vulnerability of children and in the continuation of repeated violence. Jamieson et al. note that:

Social norms that consider children as the property of their parents and not as rights holders can place children at risk of physical violence and promote a culture of silence that hinders reporting. The low status of children, evidenced by the widespread belief that children should not question the authority of their elders, disempowers children and leaves them vulnerable to abuse and neglect28

At the centre of Christian faith, is the bold confession that God became a vulnerable child and experienced human life, including the early terrors of a refugee childhood at risk of violent death and abuse. This God then not only welcomes children but makes the child a sacrament of the kin-dom or community of God and insists that it is only when adults honour and respect children and identify with the child in themselves that they can know how to participate in kin-dom existence.29 Jesus makes the child’s status the touchstone for all Christians seeking abundant life. If we take seriously Jesus’ words to receive each child in his name as Christ, then all Christians share responsibility for the fate of all children. This child-centred theology has practical implications for child protection and for freedom from child abuse and violence in offline and online forms. In Jesus’s own violent death, he stands in solidarity with all victims to remind survivors that they are not alone, and that new life is possible.

Conclusion

Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear — Nelson Mandela30

The reality of online and offline child sexual abuse and exploitation is hard to face. It requires faith communities to confront and to confess their own historical failures at times by forming havens for sexual abuse, often targeted because of their easy access to children and trusted roles. But it is a hard conversation that must be had, especially since sexual violence has often been hidden and silenced in this space – due to a history of religious taboos and toxic theology. Breaking the silence is a critical first step if faith communities are to do no harm in this emerging area and are to nurture human flourishing and connectedness in a digital age. The temptation to sweep these hard issues under the rug must be acknowledged as creating silent complicity with abuse.

Second, faith leaders are not alone in this difficult task. They can work across denominations and faiths and with other sectors to listen and learn from what other experts know.31 In fact, trying to tackle this issue merely ‘in-house’ is one of the quickest ways to do more harm. This involves humility. Rather than pointing fingers elsewhere faith leaders can acknowledge that this challenge affects all faith communities and seek to change together. Religious leaders can play a role across the child protection system especially around prevention at child, family and community levels. They can use spiritual occasions, such as childbirth, baptism or marriage, to provide parents with information on abuse and neglect, and to incorporate messages around the protection of children. They can offer ongoing pastoral support for overstretched caregivers and connect them to informal support or formal services. Opportunities for parents to share challenges and accomplishments and to support each other can be rooted in faith communities. Theologians must explore how forms of violence against children are understood in their traditions, highlight sacred texts and teachings that promote the protection of children and challenge those misused to do harm.

Third, faith leaders can use not only their access to communities and their social resources, but they must also engage in with the spiritual aspects of this issue as a unique theological task. It is clear that the spiritual power of God has been historically misused as a form of blasphemy that is still harming children. This needs to be deconstructed and reconstructed for digital realities today across theologies of human dignity, sex and gender and liberating theologies of the child including harmful patterns of unquestioned suffering, obedience and submission.

I end with some final questions. Do people feel less accountable to God or to others for their behaviour online due to its hidden nature and the idea that it is ‘not real’ but merely fantasy, even if there are real children being harmed in these interactions? How do established hierarchical power dynamics around God and humans, men and women, adults and children, and the rich and poor play out in these online spaces and how can they be confessed and recalibrated? How does increased access to sexualised online images by and of children shape children’s understanding of sexual realities in harmful ways for their God-given sexual development? The reality of online CSEA confronts us with hard questions for ‘theologies of the digital’ to engage further.

Comments
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Kate Ott: You might also find in Joyce Ann Mercer’s work a theology of children that is also anti-imperialistic which would help your argument to connect profitability of child pornography.
Kate Ott: Might this also be a place to talk about abuse prevention policies and education for the whole congregation?
Kate Ott: completely agree. Again, it would be interesting to hear the ways that children’s agency is denied and engaged in CSEA. There are ways that perpetrators invite children’s agency in grooming techniques. Also, there is a wide range of religious studies work in this area, see http://childhoodandreligion.com/ as a starting point.
Kate Ott: Totally agree. I think you could spend more time on this, limiting some of the information on international movements above.
Kate Ott: As someone who also writes about these issue from a childist perspective (https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/9/525), I would also argue that we need equally renewed/transformed sexual theologies.
Kate Ott: I appreciate the use of global networks and international programs as the main reference points especially as this is a global issue and a global Christian issue. Yet, I am missing the conversation partners in feminist and womanist theology who have been writing about sexual and gender violence against women, children and sexual minorities as well as the theologies that hold these behaviors in place. This more critical lens might align with similar critiques by gender theorists of digital gender/sexual violence and online CSEA.
Kate Ott: This feels a bit like there are only two options. Rather than a continuum or spectrum. Like, some churches have a great abuse prevention program, but also push a purity culture message that is damaging to developing sexuality for all genders. Others are completely silent while also not being havens for abusers. The representation of churches and church leaders seems a bit either/or.
Kate Ott: As well as violence and harm toward LGBT kids by families for religious reasons.
Florian Höhne: Indeed!
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Kate Ott: I wonder if use of color imagery like out of the shadows or the darker side that often relate to criminality or sinfulness contribute to narratives of anti-Blackness. On a positive theological note, God, at least throughout the Hebrew Scriptures appears in the dark, clouded, shadows when speaking or coming to folks. So there is an argument to be made for the mystery of God’s presence in this type of imagery that disrupts anti-Blackness.
Frederike van Oorschot: For me, that adresses the different layers/perspectives, talking about “reality” (not only) in the digital: What seems real for one person, is perceived as fantasy to others. This “perspectivity of reality” (does this term makes any sense in english?) and how it is related to different media might be worth a discussion related to Florians and my paper.
Frederike van Oorschot: Interesting! Could you explain your understanding of sacrament here a little more?
Frederike van Oorschot: How would you adress these issues, related to the question of (digital) realities? I feel, this spiritual dimension, you stress here, adds another layer on the question of how realities are constructed, shaped and refered to.
Frederike van Oorschot: This is very friendly - I think, there is definitely a need of a paradigm shift…
Kate Ott: Agreed. I would go further and say the current paradigms related to gender and adult/child are harmful and against Christian core values like love of neighbor.
Frederike van Oorschot: Isn’t this also (partly) due to realities drifting apart - due to ignorance or the will to ignore?
Thomas Renkert: Very good. I agree! This also lies at the core of a new conception of testimoniality in spiritual contexts.
Frederike van Oorschot: May we think about testimoniality as a ressource of reality as well? For me, it is usually put in terms of subjectivism - but it seems in need of an intersubjective (ontological? - understood as “meaningful for realities”) dimension…
Thomas Renkert: This is an important point that coincides with my paper where a lot of content moderation happens in Manila, exemplifying a quasi-colonial dynamic. Also, there is a current trial going on in Germany about this very phenomenon: https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2021-04/sexueller-kindesmissbrauch-livestream-internet-kinderpornographie-chat-philippinen
Hanna Reichel: curious to hear more about what this means!
Frederike van Oorschot: Me too!
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Hanna Reichel: “Historically”"? … “was”? …
Kate Ott: I would argue this is still very much the norm.
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