Autistic students and their parents take ‘leap of faith’

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Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a two-part series on autism and the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst University in Erie.

    Paul Cohen, a junior at Mercyhurst University in Erie, didn’t start speaking fully until he was about 5 years old.

His mother, Julia Guttman, an attorney in Washington, D.C., describes the constant care and understanding necessary to diagnose and raise a child on the autism spectrum.

“I guess I tried to take it one year at a time,” Guttman says. “If he was doing well, then I thought the next year would be better. When he was little, I had no idea how he would develop. I talked to friends who had children with various developmental issues. It was more cobbling things together.”

As in Cohen’s case, autism usually appears in early childhood, mostly among boys, and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. According to the Autism Society, more than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), considered to be the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country.

In Cohen’s lifetime, the prevalence of autism in the United States jumped dramatically, according to the Autism Society, from 1 in 150 births in 2000, to 1 in 68 in 2014. Understanding the complexity of the neurological disorder can be a difficult learning curve for parents as well as for those with autism.

That’s why Mercyhurst University, in 2008, founded the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM). Its goal is to assist students like Cohen to advocate for themselves and to develop much-needed social skills that will put them on the path to academic success and, hopefully, meaningful employment.

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Brad McGarry, director of the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), is pictured at center with students, staff and professional guides during AIM’s experiential learning trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.   (Contributed photo)

Since the program’s inception, 22 students on the autism spectrum have graduated with four-year degrees from Mercyhurst, says Brad McGarry, director of AIM. Currently, AIM enrolls 60 students from all over the world. It is one of the oldest and largest autism support programs in the country.

“AIM is a fine line between enabling and empowering,” says Brad McGarry, director. “For the parents of these students, a four-year college away from home is not doable, but with the support of AIM it is. It’s a leap of faith on the part of parents.”

Guttman and Janet Slaby, the mother of Mercyhurst grad Ryan Slaby, agree. AIM staff meet weekly with students to keep them on task with coursework. Students also are required to join at least two extracurricular activities in order to improve social skills. Optional experiential adventures—including trips to the Grand Canyon in the western U.S., and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa—boost student confidence. Career training offers mock interviews and assists with job placement.

Cohen, a history major, has taken advantage of everything, including internships at the International Institute in Erie and the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“I think Paul is going to be able to live on his own and I think he will get a job someday, but he’ll have more challenges,” Guttman says. “He’ll be much better prepared because of the AIM program.”

For Janet Slaby, Mercyhurst’s Catholic tradition and small size were beneficial for her son Ryan, who now is working full-time for KeyBank in Cleveland.

“We’re Catholic, so it made me feel a sense of peace,” Slaby says. “It instilled in him confidence and a belief in himself.”

Paul Cohen also is Catholic, but that’s not a requirement to attend Mercyhurst, a university founded in 1926 by the Sisters of Mercy in Erie.

He’s involved in several campus organizations, including Colleges Against Cancer, Circle K International, and Mercyhurst Campus Ministry. He joined the excursion to Tanzania, and traveled this fall to New York City, where he was interviewed along with other students for a Netflix documentary, “This Business of Autism,” scheduled to be aired in April 2018.

“AIM has allowed me to soar,” Cohen, 21, says.

Cohen met recently in McGarry’s office with three other AIM students: Kevin Thomas, a senior majoring in English; Rachael Wilson, a sophomore with a double major in English and history; and June Durkee, a first-year student who plans to major in sports business.


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Mercyhurst University students June Durkee, Paul Cohen, Kevin Thomas and Rachael Wilson gathered recently with Brad McGarry, second from right, director of Mercyhurst’s Autism Initiative. (Photo by Mary Solberg)

They frankly discussed the difficulties that have plagued them since childhood—stuttering, isolation, an inability to focus. Most take advantage of on-campus housing dedicated to AIM students, who generally experience less stress living with each other.

“It’s really nice to have people who understand what goes on in my head,” Wilson says. “A lot of my friends are not on the spectrum, so they act like they know, but they don’t really get it. People who I’m friends with at AIM really get me.”

Adds Durkee, who was officially diagnosed with autism in her senior year of high school: “The diagnosis gave me another perspective. Now I fully understand why I might have been timid in my early days.”

Thomas, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, acknowledges having certain ticks and mannerisms that make it difficult in social situations. But AIM, he says, helped him make important life decisions.

“I’ve figured out more of what I want to do,” says Thomas, who hopes to land a proofreading/editing job after graduation.

In that regard, students with autism are like any college-age students trying to find their way.

Says Cohen, “I’ve learned about accepting myself.”


Remembering veterans at Christmastime: Fifth-grader lays wreath at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


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Dehlia Elbe, wearing the ballcap at center, helps lay a wreath Dec. 16 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Wreaths Across America)


CLEARFIELD—Dehlia Elbe is only 11, but she found herself on the national stage Dec. 16 when she helped lay a Christmas wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.

The fifth-grader from St. Francis School in Clearfield joined three other people selected nationally to lay the wreath as part of the annual Wreaths Across America (WAA) event at Arlington National Cemetery. In total, Wreaths Across America—a national nonprofit dedicated to remembering and honoring veterans—placed 246,700 wreaths that day on the markers of veterans buried at Arlington. A total of 1.5 million WAA wreaths were placed on veterans’ graves across the country.

Dehlia called her experience “quite outstanding.”

“I think Wreaths Across America is really amazing,” Dehlia told FaithLife. “You remember the soldiers. You honor those who served and who are still serving, and it teaches the value of freedom and that freedom isn’t free.”

Dehlia was selected to help place the wreath by Wreaths Across America founders Morrill and Karen Worcester, of Maine, whom she met during a recent trip there with her father, Ken Elbe, a truck driver with Tyson Foods. Tyson is a corporate supporter of Wreaths Across America.

Elbe took his daughter with him to Maine so she could present the Worcesters with t-shirts from St. Francis School. The school raised hundreds of dollars to purchase WAA wreaths for veterans’ graves at Beulah Cemetery in nearby Ramey.

“It just touched them so much that they gave her this honor,” Ken Elbe said.

School principal Sheila Clancy was inspired to pursue the WAA project after a conversation with Dehlia’s mom, Tina, who is a kindergarten teacher at St. Francis. About 165 veterans are buried at Beulah Cemetery, but the community has never before had the funds to provide enough wreaths.

Clancy is ecstatic that Dehlia and St. Francis were put in the national spotlight for a good cause.

“I think this shows how everybody doing one small part can lead into something so much bigger,” Clancy said.

Wreaths Across America spokesperson Amber Caron said Dehlia’s selection to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier “is a pretty significant honor.”

“Dehlia gets what we’re doing and she helps other kids understand it,” Caron said.

Autistic students get ‘safety net’ at ‘Hurst


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Mercyhurst University grad Ryan Slaby stands at Cleveland’s Tower City following a job interview for a promotion at KeyBank. (Contributed photo)

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on autism and the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst University, Erie. Read the final installment in the Dec. 24 edition of FaithLife.


    Twenty-four-year-old Ryan Slaby has been through speech therapy, art therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. An autism diagnosis can require that range of care.

But Slaby is employed today, thanks in part to the internationally recognized Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst University (AIM) in Erie. A 2016 graduate of Mercyhurst, he majored in both accounting and finance and is working as a specialist in the records management department at KeyBank in Cleveland.

This month, he’s hoping to get a promotion as an accountant.

“I was always able to overcome all of my different challenges,” Slaby says.

Those challenges began early, according to his mother, Janet Slaby of Brecksville, Ohio. She recalls her young son having delays in motor skills and speech. It wasn’t until he was 9 that the Cleveland Clinic diagnosed him on the autism spectrum, a complex developmental disability that usually appears in early childhood and affects a person’s ability to communicate and socialize.

“We did a lot of therapies over the years, anything we could do to help him in any way,” Janet Slaby says. “But Ryan just kept exceeding my expectations.”

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that autism occurs in 1 in every 68 births in the United States. Most of those are boys. The Autism Society of America estimates that the U.S. is confronted with nearly $90 billion annually in costs for autism care and support.

Faced with the increasing prevalence of the disorder, Mercyhurst, in 2008, founded AIM. Its goal is to assist students on the spectrum to advocate for themselves and to develop much-needed social skills that will put them on the path to academic success and, hopefully, meaningful employment.

Since the program’s inception, 22 students with autism have graduated with four-year degrees from Mercyhurst, says Brad McGarry, director of AIM. Currently, AIM enrolls 60 students from all over the world. It is one of the oldest and largest autism support programs in the country.

“I’ve heard from parents who say they never would have looked at a four-year college for their son or daughter if they didn’t have trust in AIM,” McGarry says. “AIM is a safety net for students on the autism spectrum.”

On a recent fall day, McGarry gathered with four current Mercyhurst AIM students, ranging from a freshman to a five-year senior. They’ve all come to AIM because of its reputation.

Paul Cohen, from Washington, D.C., is a junior majoring in history, and Waterford resident Rachael Wilson is a sophomore double majoring in English and history.

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Mercyhurst University junior Paul Cohen and first-year student June Durkee meet on campus with Brad McGarry, director of the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst University (AIM). (Photo by Mary Solberg)

They and nine other AIM students traveled to New York City this fall to visit major companies—including Google—that have committed to hiring students with autism. They also met with such autism advocacy organizations as Autism Speaks and the World Autism Day initiative at the United Nations.

A film crew recorded their activities for use in a documentary, “This Business of Autism,” which will be released on Netflix next April.

The New York trip—funded by a grant from the A.J. and Sigismunda Palumbo Charitable Trust— is essential to providing career opportunities to students with autism, who face a daunting national employment rate of under 15 percent.

Mercyhurst’s AIM graduates have an average employment rate of 64 percent.

“It’s not enough to prepare these students academically for the world of work,” McGarry says. “We have to make sure they’re employable after graduation.”

Both Cohen and Wilson are interested in careers as archivists. Twenty-two-year-old Kevin Thomas, from Georgia, is graduating this year with a degree in English, and June Durkee, of Maryland, is a first-year student with hopes of entering the field of sports business.

“I’ve been able to pinpoint what it is that I want to do because of the support of the AIM program and other opportunities,” says Thomas, who has written film reviews for his hometown newspaper in Fayetteville, Ga., since he was 10.

Ryan Slaby believes the program set him on a path to success. He bought his own car a couple of months ago and is saving his money to purchase a condo.

He encourages others with autism to be honest about their disability with friends and even future employers “so that others can have an understanding of what their difficulties and challenges are.”


AUGMENTED REALITY: Mercyhurst Prep incorporates new technology


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Sean Baer, instructional technology coach at Mercyhurst Prep in Erie, demonstrates the 3-D image of a human heart through the school’s new zSpace technology. (Screenshot courtesy of Mercyhurst Preparatory School)


    Virtual reality isn’t enough for Mercyhurst Prep in Erie. This fall, the co-ed Catholic high school added augmented reality to its curriculum.

In November, students began using zSpace, an educational tool that combines these complementary technologies to enhance the 21st-century classroom.

“zSpace allows you into the third dimension,” says Sean Baer, instructional technology coach at Mercyhurst. “3-D is the next best thing in education.”

Mercyhurst is the only high school in the region, besides the Buffalo area, that uses zSpace. Local physicians and educators already have taken a peek at the 12 new zSpace stations, which are incorporated into the school’s already-existing DREAM Lab. The lab is fully equipped with computers, 3-D printers and video walls.

“We’ve heard from doctors who say med school would have been so much easier with zSpace technology,” says Mercyhurst President Ed Curtin.

The school set aside $50,000 in its budget to acquire zSpace, Curtin says, because it is committed to offering students the most cutting-edge education.

“Our primary task is to prepare students for college. When they get there, they’re not going to be behind anyone,” Curtin says.

In 2016, Mercyhurst added virtual reality programs and 3-D printers into its technology lab.

With virtual reality, students wear individual goggles to experience a computer-generated, occular environment. With zSpace and augmented reality, the real world is closer and richer. Augmented reality is experienced not just by one student wearing glasses, but can be shared with an entire classroom.

zSpace uses an all-in-one computer to create a lifelike and interactive experience for students in most subject areas, including art, biology, math, engineering, even language. Using a special stylus, a student or teacher wearing glasses with sensors can seemingly touch a simulated beating heart, tour Paris, or create a ceramic pot.

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Mercyhurst Prep sophomore Mark DiPietro and junior Courtney Jung use a zSpace station during biology class. (Photo by Mary Solberg)

Most noteworthy is the ability to insert a virtual camera into a simulated beating heart in order to pop out the various chambers, arteries and circuits. The same can be done with other body parts.

For science/biology teachers like Theresa Wyman, it’s a significant complement, not a replacement, for the dissection of sheep hearts and fetal pigs.

“My biology students recognize very quickly that this is an area that is growing,” Wyman says.

zSpace images are so life-like and three-dimensional that a classroom of students can virtually dissect a body part.

Adds Curtin, “This is as close as you can get without having to bring a cadaver into a high school.”

Technology coach Sean Baer and Principal Deborah Laughlin are excited that the program appeals to all students, whatever their level of learning or interests.

“It’s going to be helpful in two ways. It will engage students, and if students are engaged, they’re going to learn more,” Laughlin says. “And second, I’m anxious to see how it helps students who are struggling learners. Students with difficulty with retention or organizing material will benefit from this, too.”

Mercy in Uganda: First-person narrative

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Dave and Kathy Wayman of Erie, center, are shown presenting a bicycle to David Kisekka and his mother, Benedicta, at a celebration at St. Philomena School in Lwabikere, Uganda. Kathy and Dave sponsor David and his little brother, Augustine, so that they are able to attend the school. Roads in this remote area of Uganda are just dirt tracks, so bicycles are a useful means of transportation. (Contributed photo)


Editor’s Note: Dave Wayman of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Erie shares his experience of a recent mission trip to Uganda.

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Visit the sick. Ransom the captive. Bury the dead.

These are the traditional corporal works of mercy that we are all called to do as Catholic Christians. Most of us reach out in mercy in our own communities, but sometimes, God calls us out of our comfort zone to help those in need in places we never dreamed of going.

For me, it was Africa.

Traveling to Africa was never on my bucket list, but two Lents ago, the Holy Spirit showed me that while giving up sweets is nice, helping someone is actually much better. I decided to sponsor a child through Mary Mission, Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit headquartered in Bismark, N.D. The mission had just built St. Philomena Primary and Nursery School, which is located in a rural area of East Africa where an estimated 800 children have lost one or more parents to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

These children need to learn English and obtain a Catholic education if they ever hope to avoid making the same potential mistakes as some of their parents. They need to be given the chance to advance economically in the wider world outside of their tribal area.

I sponsored a boy, David Kisekka, and my wife, Kathy, sponsored his little brother, Augustine. We were able to help them attend St. Philomena, which currently has 285 students and a waiting list of 400.

I was invited to go along on Mary Mission’s July 2016 trip to the school. Although reluctant at first, the Holy Spirit got the better of that argument, so I went.

I mostly wanted to make sure the charity was legitimate and the work they were doing was worthwhile. I also wanted to be certain that it was safe before Kathy would join me in the future.

To my delight, it was both legitimate and safe. What joy I felt in being part of the mission! I traveled with four others, called “mission partners,” who took clothes, dental supplies and worm medicine, in addition to financial assistance provided by Mary Mission.

What love we were given in return! The people and the children are very poor and deeply appreciative of anything done for them. On the Sunday I was there, we celebrated the first-ever Mass at the school and afterward the children entertained us with dancing and singing and plays for about five straight hours. I was moved to tears several times as I watched them. I remember thinking, “I’ve done virtually nothing to deserve this gift of love I am being given as part of the team.”

God is so good. You really can’t out-do him.

Because it was relatively safe to travel there, Kathy accompanied me on a return trip last July. This time, we had a total of 13 mission partners, including a doctor, two nurses, and Erie resident Nicole Maxson, a student at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

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Nicole Maxson of Erie teaches the finer points of basketball outside St. Philomena School in Lwabikere, Uganda. (Contributed photo)

Donors previously built a basketball court at the school, but the children are not familiar with how basketball is played. There is no electricity, so they are not exposed to the game via television.

A former varsity standout on the Villa Maria Academy basketball team and on the Clarion University women’s basketball team, Nicole didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation to be part of our mission team and teach basic basketball skills to the children.

She says: “I learned so many life lessons about who I am as a person, about what I can give to others. The people of Uganda and the children taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson of all: you don’t need much in life to be happy. As long as you have Jesus and those you love around you, all will be well.”

Kathy loved her experience as well, and is eager to return.

“I was most moved by the children—especially the 32 children who made their first Communion in a half-built church that is already full of love—and the faith exuded by the people of the villages,” Kathy says.

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Thirty-two children made their first Communion at St. Philomena School this past summer. (Contributed photo)

St. Philomena School opened in February 2016 and already is bearing much fruit for the faith. The sacraments and the gifts and graces they offer are preparing the children for a better future.

Much has been accomplished by the grace of God, but there is much more to do.

Among the most rewarding experiences of my life has been going to Uganda and seeing so much good accomplished in such a short time—and seeing children and families hopeful about their future. I pray that others listen to their hearts and reach out in mercy, too.

My advice to anyone is, “If the Holy Spirit prompts you to go on a mission, just go, no matter where it leads.”

   Dave Wayman is a retired publisher. He can be reached at He is willing to speak at parishes and schools about his mission experiences.

 ==================INFORMATION ON MARY MISSION========================

Visit and/or go to the website of the Ugandan non-governmental organization Green Village Children Center at

myParish App to launch soon


The myParish App is free to all parishes in the Diocese of Erie.

Parishioners of all ages in the Diocese of Erie are ready for their parish to go mobile soon.

Beginning Nov. 18-19, all 97 parishes in the diocese will be in a position to launch myParish App, an easy-to-use parish-based resource through which people may access important information, including Mass and confession times, as well as daily Mass readings from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic news, and an array of common prayers ranging from the Act of Contrition to the Stations of the Cross.

Thirty parishes in the diocese already have customized the app, taking advantage of features such as parish-specific photos, a link to their bulletin and the option to post homilies.

These parishes will invite people to put the app on their phone on Download Sunday (Nov. 19), but any parishioner can download it from the App Store or Google Play.

“Then they can search for their parish and have access to at least the basic features, as well as messages that will come from Bishop [Lawrence] Persico or the diocese,” says Anne-Marie Welsh, director of communications for the Diocese of Erie. “I’ve had the app on my phone for a while, and am a big fan. It’s very easy to navigate, and I especially like having the daily readings on my phone each morning.”

More than 1,800 parishes across the nation are already using myParish App.

“One of the biggest selling points for me was how easy it is for parish staff to upload information,” Welsh says. “If they’re comfortable with word processing, they’ll find this to be a straightforward tool.”

The $787 start-up fee and $49 monthly charge for each parish has been waived, thanks to the diocesan relationship with Faith magazine, Lansing, Mich. A basic app has been created for every parish in the diocese, and a launch kit was to arrive in each parish this week.

Parishes that still need to customize their app or to train staff will find information in their kit about how to do so.

In addition, the Communications Office is available to help parishes make the necessary connections.

St. Marys native takes global lead in child internet safety

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Pope Francis shakes hands with Tom Shields of Queen of the World Parish, St. Marys, and greets his wife, Kaye, and their daughter Baroness Joanna Shields at the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Oct. 6. (Contributed photo)



Baroness Joanna Shields—a native of the small Elk County community of St. Marys in the Diocese of Erie—credits her tight-knit Irish Catholic family for providing “the moral compass” that helped catapult her to be a global leader in child internet safety.

A graduate of Queen of the World School and Elk County Catholic in St. Marys, the 55-year-old Shields went on to become the only American woman who earned, because of her work, a life peerage in the House of Lords of the United Kingdom.

In her current position as Prime Minister Theresa May’s special representative on internet safety, she brings simple values and a lot of smarts she put to use at such mega tech firms as Google, Facebook, Aol and Bebo.

“I always wanted to be a good person and do something more than just business,” Shields told FaithLife in a telephone interview from her home in London. “I’ve been in all these great companies, but the impact of what I’m doing now has been incredible and satisfying and the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.”

On Oct. 3, Shields was a keynote speaker at the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The event was organized by the university’s Centre for Child Protection in partnership with WeProtect Global Alliance (, an organization Shields founded with former Prime Minister David Cameron.

Her parents, Tom and Kaye Shields of Queen of the World Parish in St. Marys, attended their daughter’s talk and met Pope Francis at the conclusion of the four-day congress. Also in attendance was Shields’ 18-year-old son, Ben, who is a student at University College London.

“She never ceases to amaze me,” Tom Shields, 80, says of his second-oldest daughter. “It was quite a speech she gave. She really got everyone thinking about what is happening with this [internet safety].”

Meeting the pope and hearing her daughter speak about protecting the safety, security and dignity of children was “really tip-top,” Kaye Shields, 77, says. She and her husband have followed Baroness Shields around the world as she pursued her career in the tech industry working for Silicon Valley companies for more than 25 years. Most recently, from 2009-12, Baroness Shields ran Facebook in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“Some people don’t believe all the things she’s done,” Kaye Shields says.

Baroness Shields’ sister, Diann Buttery, a parishioner of Queen of the World, was glued to the live stream of her sister’s talk at the Vatican in early October. Baroness Shields is one of five Shields siblings.

“She has worked all her life in technology, but I think she knows in her heart that this is her life’s mission,” Buttery says.

graphic_internetWith 3 billion internet users worldwide, it’s going to take a lot of faith, skill and commitment to rein in the ever-increasing online prevalence of pornography, human trafficking, bullying, prostitution and “sexting,” to name a few of the worst problems. An estimated 800 million children around the globe regularly browse the internet, prompting Pope Francis, in his speech at the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress, to assure the “availability and commitment” of the Catholic Church.

On Oct. 6, the congress released a “Declaration of Rome,” which stated that the global internet safety problem “cannot be solved by one nation or one company or one faith acting alone.”

The declaration, Baroness Shields says, is a “call to action” to world leaders in government and religion, technology companies, ministries of public health, law enforcement and medical institutions. She encourages the average person anywhere to contribute to change by being aware of online dangers.

In her speech in Rome, Baroness Shields challenged her listeners, asking: “Years from now, when history writes the chapter entitled ‘the digital age,’ will it celebrate the immense benefits that technology has delivered and the great human progress that followed? Or, will it be a requiem of regret for childhood lost?”

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Baroness Joanna Shields and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner of the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University present a declaration for global internet safety to Pope Francis Oct. 6. (Contributed photo)