The faith community has a significant role to play in combating the exploitation of children.

Such exploitation has “soared in recent years” as the Internet has “expose[d] children to new and evolving forms of sexual exploitation,” a United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF) press release said in announcing the release of a resource for faith-based groups.

“Child sex offenders are very manipulative, convincing and persistent in their efforts to exploit children. They take advantage of the Internet and online tools to access, lure potential victims, produce child sexual abuse materials, upload and disseminate them,” the report stated. “Many parents, community leaders, policymakers and children are not sufficiently aware of the risks.”

A May 5 Federal Bureau of Investigation press release announcing the sentencing of the creator and administrator of “the world’s largest child pornography website” highlights the scope of the exploitation taking place.

To address the lack of awareness, “Protecting Children from Online Sexual Exploitation: A Guide to Action for Religious Leaders and Communities” was created by ECPAT International, Religions for Peace and UNICEF to aid religious communities in understanding and engaging this issue.

“Faith-based organizations and religious leaders are in a unique position to mobilize moral authority on this issue, influence thinking, generate debate and set standards for others to follow,” the report emphasized.

Six major online threats to children are identified and explained: Child sexual abuse material, computer/digitally generated child sexual abuse/exploitation material, online grooming for sexual purposes, sexting, sexual extortion and live online child sexual abuse or live streaming of child sexual abuse.

Following explanations of the ways children are being exploited, the report explained how several faith traditions emphasize protecting children and then provided five ways faith communities can respond:

1. Ensuring children’s safety both within their houses of faith and in the larger community through up-to-date policies, procedures and codes of conduct.

2. Raising awareness about abuse and exploitation through regular training and information sessions.

3. Reporting abuse to the proper authorities.

4. Advocating for legislation that protects children.

5. Collaborating with other religious traditions to more effectively combat exploitation.

“Religious groups and communities represent the most developed, inter-connected form of social organizations in existence, reaching the smallest villages to capital cities and beyond,” the report observed. “Due to this unique position, religious leaders and communities are particularly well placed to protect children from online sexual exploitation, to offer care and support to those who suffer such violence, and to work with children, parents, teachers and the larger community, as well as with law enforcement, to prevent and stop this crime.”

The full guide is available here.

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