Catholic women raise alarm over spike in child abuse during lockdowns

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Catholic women are calling for increased prevention efforts after pandemic lockdowns led to an increase in child abuse at home.

Katharina Anna Fuchs is a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome who has conducted research for its Centre for Child Protection and recently co-authored a book on child abuse prevention.

She spoke at an international webinar organized by the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO) on March 30.

"Due to isolation, lockdown, quarantine, and so on, a huge number of children has been abused over the last year ... many of them also sexually,” Fuchs said.

In addition to domestic abuse and child maltreatment, the online exploitation of children has also increased due to the consequences of the pandemic, she said.

“According to the data provided by Interpol last year, there was an increase in child sexual abuse and distribution of pedophilic material on the internet by over 50%,” she noted.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States also found that online exploitation doubled between June 2019 and June 2020.

Some are calling this uptick in child abuse, particularly domestic abuse, a “shadow pandemic” or a “pandemic within a pandemic,” Fuchs said.

On March 29, the Centre for Social Justice, a U.K. think tank, launched an investigative report uncovering the extent of abuse.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid said that the report, entitled “Unsafe Children,” exposed “an epidemic of child sexual abuse” in the U.K.

Fuchs explained that disclosure of abuse has become more difficult with the coronavirus restrictions as children and adolescents have less exposure to trusted people to whom they could disclose domestic abuse.

“That means that abuse continues behind closed doors,” she said.

Her new book, “How to prevent child abuse in the family and at school. A mission for women,” is co-authored together with María Inés Franck, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University in Argentina.

Both Fuchs and Franck spoke at a series of webinars organized by the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations in Spanish, French, and English to mark the beginning of the Year “Amoris Laetitia Family,” highlighting the need to prevent abuse amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Franck told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, that “we are all responsible for prevention.”

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the World Health Organization reported that 25% of children worldwide suffer from neglect, mistreatment, emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse.

“It is adults who must create and promote the safest possible environments for children. That is why awareness-raising, training, and the establishment of clear and mandatory rules are another very important general line for prevention,” Franck said.

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Linda Ghisoni, the undersecretary for the Vatican Dicastery of Laity, Family, and Life, wrote the book’s preface. At the Spanish webinar on March 29, she said that the coronavirus restrictions have made accompaniment of victims and “the protection of the most vulnerable even more difficult.”

“Children, women, people with disabilities -- locked in their homes more isolated than usual -- have often been more exposed to loneliness and violence,” Ghisoni said.

The Vatican official noted that it was apt that the child prevention webinars were taking place in Holy Week.

“These sessions, which take place precisely during Holy Week, show the loving concern of the women who ... in the silence of Holy Saturday prepare the precious oils to anoint the body of the Lord, pierced with wounds, the body of Christ, which is the Church, to anoint His wounds still visible made glorious in the Risen One,” she said.

María Lía Zervino, the president-general of the Catholic women’s organization, also highlighted the link between the Lord’s suffering on the cross and the scourge of child abuse.

“We are all here, gathered in this week in which Jesus is going to have his Passion, going to his death to give his life for us, also we have to give our lives for them, for the children ... if they are at risk or, of course, if they have had these horrible experiences,” she said.

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