THE PRIEST OF THE DIGITAL PERIPHERIES An interview with Father Fortunato Di Noto, founder and president of ‘Meter’ Foundation, on the Italian National Day for children victims of violence, exploitation, and pedophilia

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Today, on May 5, we celebrate the eighth Italian National Day for children victims of violence, exploitation, and pedophilia. In Italy, the Law No. 41 established it in 2009. Among the promoters of this legislative initiative, there was also Father Fortunato Di Noto, founder and president of ‘Meter’ Foundation – born in Sicily, in Syracuse – he has committed for over twenty years to children’s protection from violence of any kind, especially from pedophilia, which is devastating. He is also the founder of the “Telefono Arcobaleno“, specialized in “hunting down” “monsters” on the web. There are over 10 million victims of child-pornography online. Internet is the digital universe, the space without space, a place without time, omnipresent, circular, and diffused. An existential and pastoral periphery needs specific educational, civic, religious, and moral attention. It is a black hole of criminality. The missionary priest explains it well in his recently published book: “Web Mission in the Digital Peripheries”, ed. Passione Educativa. “A mission on the Internet is necessary to protect children and adolescents”, to “prevent current generations from being trapped in the Network”. We need – the priest says – to “inhabit the digital peripheries”, promote “the acquisition of a renovated lifestyle, similar to Jesus’s way of being”, taking all the opportunities, without ignoring the dangers of a real virtual life”.

“Mercy can activate a new way of talking and communicating,” Pope Francis writes in his Message for the 50th World Day for Social Communications (May 8), whose topic is “Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter”. This book is a work of mercy in the age of globalized information technology. “The digital revolution has marked a profound change, which raises some questions: can technological evolution affect children’s cognitive, emotional, and relational development? Can you meet Jesus on social networks? What would Jesus do faced with the sins and offenses that inhabit the digital peripheries? “, reads the Preface.

This question is the fundamental topic of the book and of our interview with Father Fortunato Di Noto, the brave priest on the threshold of the third millennium.

Father Di Noto, how many cases of pedophilia did ‘Meter’ Foundation work on? Can you provide some data?

“Statistics are disturbing. Over 10 million children lured on the Internet worldwide, and Europe leads the chart. Our association reports new cases to the police on a daily basis. Through our listening and reception center, we have accompanied about 70 minors last year, and about 20 since the beginning of this year. Our association reported about 100 thousand sites and over 1 million photos and videos to the police in the last ten years. An average of little less than 10 thousand a year. Cases of enticements on social networks are growing. Then there is the ‘black hole’ of the deep Web, sites that are invisible to search engines. Many complaints have led to the closure of sites and arrests. Yet, it is a drop in the bucket. The purpose of this Day is not remembrance; it is rather an opportunity to raise true awareness among children themselves, about their rights and the dangers they face. Attention to these problems is growing, but there is still too much indifference towards what the president of the Italian Senate Pietro Grasso, in his message to our association, has called a real social emergency, a plague”.

The Internet has opened new scenarios of violence and perversion on children. How can we protect ourselves?

“From a technological point of view, the pedophile is an extremely refined criminal. He is also extremely dangerous, since he lives ‘in a community’. He looks up child pornography on the Internet, buys and exchanges it. The phenomenon concerns also newborns and even unborn children. Whereas we leave children on their own with the ‘atomic bomb’ of the Web. They are orphans, although they have both parents, with a mouse in their hand and a touchscreen before them. The responsibility of the adults is great. We must assist our children’s use of new technologies according to their age. The age of many minors changes, and along with it grows the risk of being lured via fake profiles of peers, for example. Taking advantage of their curiosity, they can be involved in conversations on sexual topics. We need to know and face the risks. It is a global emergency that requires a global, coordinated action of the forces of order and social workers, but also that of the Church and other religious institutions”.

What is the state of the laws?

“The alert is red. There are national laws, but many of them are never implemented. We need global international actions, which will transform protocols into concrete initiatives. The risks are global and serious and we need coordinated and concrete actions. The risks of cybercrime are very high, especially when children are involved.”

Your book, Web Mission in the Digital Peripheries, is a web ministry “under the banner of mercy.” What is it about?

“I am an expert surfer. I learned to surf on the Web since its inception in 1989. The Web is a land for mission, the digital periphery, where there are so many shipwrecks of life who sail without direction, in search of themselves, lost in the flow of information and faceless interlocutors or mask. At the beginning, I was identified as ‘the man with the cross’. On the web, there are people who are looking for God, who need love. And God had been living in the Internet even before it physically appeared. It is a gift to the Man, whose very nature is seeking knowledge and love. Witnesses can reveal the merciful love of God to the users of the Web.”

The Web is the new land of mission, the “new world” to be civilized, right? A true and real one, far from being “virtual”?

“Etymologically, virtual means ‘to grow in virtue’. In the virtual world, there are both good and evil things. And evil is real on the Web; it is exponential. The most atrocious things manifest there, such as degrading pornography, child pornography, Satanism and violence, fraud, deception, all of which often hide behind false and obscure identities. The Web has amplified evil in the world. My book tells how you have to ‘live’ in this place, answering the main question: What would have done Jesus in the digital age? But it is important to live in the real world, day by day, ‘face to face’ with other people and with our responsibilities and life choices.”

What would have done Jesus in the digital age?

“He would have been who he was and still is, also on the web. He would have communicated Love. How would He have used the Internet or a smartphone? Not to betray, deceive, or use the other, but to serve the good, being fully Word and manifesting the way He is. This is the fundamental message of Christianity for digital humanism: be fully and authentically yourselves. Witness the kerygma, the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the pastoral mission. Nonetheless, there are priests who do not use the Web this way, some of them get lost in sterile speculation. We must talk to everyone, but do so while witnessing the ‘good news’ of the Son of God. I will tell you a story from my life. At the age of seven, when I learned to read, I received a Gospel with a red cover, which I always kept with me. My spiritual father used to tell me: ‘If you want to be a good Christian, read the Gospel every day’. To grow in virtue and inhabit the Web properly, you have read the Gospel every day.”

How can you convey passion for the Gospel on the Web, where people use a basic and quick language, which remains mostly on the surface of things?

Faith is not a slogan, even if in some cases resorting to slogan-based language can be useful. You can also use the Web to spread comments on the Gospel, theological studies and research. Lectio divina takes place in wisdom and lives ‘shoulder to shoulder’, ‘face to face’, ‘hand in hand”’.

“The nature of Love is communication; it makes us open up,” the Pope writes in his Message for World Communications Day 2016. But communication, exchange of ideas, feelings, emotions, and images can also be the enemy of love, for ourselves, the others, and for God, can’t it?

“True communication is truth and love. It all depends on your position before truth, on the way you live love. If it means service for the other, for the other’s good, to the point of dying to make it live forever, like Jesus Christ, it makes us grow and helps to heal the wounds of sin. Love must be communicated and shared with the others, in true community and communion. Otherwise, anti-love empties communication.’’

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