The Web's Dark Secret

Father Fortunato Di Noto counts himself as having once been among the innocent, or at least the blissfully ignorant. He is everything you might expect an Italian priest to be: portly, balding, popular among the local kids, prone to passionate bursts of indignation. He wears a floor-length black cassock, and sometimes props his glasses low on his nose, so his blue eyes gleam over the rims with added intensity. His parish church, the Madonna del Carmine, occupies a square in an old part of Avola, a small coastal town in Sicily. The neighboring buildings, chipped and peeling, have empty holes for windows. The outside of Father Fortunato's church is drab concrete. Inside, overhanging the pews and altar, is a garish modern painting portraying the seven deadly sins. A group of children has gathered in a small wooden alcove for a Bible class. Beyond them, in a small back office, two boys are playing Super Mario Brothers on a computer.

It was here, by grim happenstance in 1996, that Father Fortunato experienced an epiphany. He had begun to offer an Internet course to parish children, believing it was a vital learning tool. During one of the first meetings of his informal study group, a little girl said she wanted to search for "lollipops." Using an Italian slang word for lollipop--slurpy--Father Fortunato punched the letters into the search engine. But slurpy is also slang for a sex act; what came back was a connection to an outfit called the Pedophile Liberation Front, which defends the lifestyle of pedophiles--people who are sexually attracted to children. Through that link, Father Fortunato found other sites, and discovered letters addressed to kids attempting to lure them into relationships. "I'm lucky because I have faith," says the priest. "If I didn't, I'm sure I would have gone out there with a machine gun and taken justice in my own hands."

Father Fortunato did seek justice of a different sort. Four years and thousands of Web searches later, he and three colleagues have uncovered evidence of mind-numbing atrocities, including photos of child rape involving children as young as toddlers and infants. The priest traced a criminal trail linking distributors and users of such child pornography with those who molest children or worse--many of them like-minded spirits who have created a subculture in the dark corners of the Web. "In the beginning, it was photos of nude children," he says. "But progressively, I began to discover tortures." Various clues led his mouse around the globe--to sites and peddlers of child porn in Russia, Europe, America. Eventually, he helped investigators break a major international ring of pedophiles, based in Russia, leading to a series of crackdowns that is expected to continue shortly in the United States.

Within the next few weeks, the U.S. government plans to announce a wide sweep against alleged consumers of child pornography in more than a dozen cities across the country. Customs agents have already secretly executed search warrants on several targets of the investigation, who are alleged to be customers of a Moscow Web site called Blue Orchid. Sources told NEWSWEEK that the American targets of the Blue Orchid investigation may be involved in trading photos with other pedophiles. Some of the targets may also be charged with actually molesting children. One of the most distressing aspects of this investigation, law-enforcement sources say, was the discovery that Blue Orchid was peddling a tape to American suspects in which a molester was depicted severely beating up a child.

This kind of material makes most people turn away with profound revulsion. Other people will dismiss the problem as one of lone perverts trading dirty pictures. But that very instinct--to turn away--serves the child pornographers well. "The problem is that these kinds of things aren't very well known, and since they're not well known, people have a hard time believing them," says Father Fortunato. "Silence is what allows pedophiles to win." The fact is, thousands of children around the world have been brutally abused to create these images, and demand for the pictures is burgeoning, fueled by the Internet. That in turn encourages more abuse. Child pornography comes in many forms, ranging from photos of kids in baths to the terrible images that Father Fortunato discovered. Some are old images that have been scanned into computers; others are new. Many pedophiles never act on their urges, while others commit acts of cruelty that are, simply, unthinkable. Yet the thousands of children in the photos, tapes and videos pinging around the Internet never had the option to turn away.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, law-enforcement officers in the United States figured they had child pornography under control. They cracked down on peddlers and buyers--who were using overland mail and neighborhood photo labs--to such an extent that it was hard for pedophiles to find and interact with one another. A lonely and hunted breed, they often resorted to crossing national borders to places like Sri Lanka and the Philippines that had more available victims and less strict law enforcement. "Child pornography was pretty much eradicated in the 1980s," says Kevin Delli-Colli, who runs the U.S. Customs Cyber-Smuggling Center, a unit that combats the import of child-sex photos and films. "With the advent of the Internet, it exploded."

Suddenly, pedophiles could use their own computers to make instant copies of pictures--grabbed from an Internet club on a Web site located in, say, Moscow--and send them to like-minded friends around the world. Men who had fantasies that they were once ashamed to admit or afraid to act upon now found a "community" in online clubs and chat rooms devoted to preteen sex. No longer did pedophiles have to prowl the seedier sections of the city for photos or films; they could meet friends and download, in their living rooms, child pornography made with film-free digital cameras (no need to risk exposure at a photo store) and home-made CD-ROMs. Nor did Americans believe they had to travel to lands where sexual laws were milder. Scarier still, sexual predators interested in older kids no longer had to lurk near a school or neighborhood hangout. Via the Internet, they could enter a home, introduce themselves to a teenage child and carry on a long process of seduction.

Today, international pedophile rings sell and trade hundreds of thousands of images. When police in 13 countries, including the United States, broke up the Wonderland Internet ring in 1998, they discovered computer files with three quarters of a million images of child pornography in Britain alone. (The 200 members of the Wonderland Internet relay chat group each had to provide 10,000 images in order to join.) Collating the photos and extracting head and shoulder shots, police in the United Kingdom working with other specialists identified 1,263 different victims, all of them under the age of puberty. In the Netherlands, when activists broke up the Apollo ring of child abusers led by Gerald Ulrich the same year, they discovered CD-ROM duplicating facilities in his home; on the first Ulrich disc alone, Dutch police identified more than 200 victims--and 16 more such discs have yet to be fully cataloged. Many of the images on the Ulrich CD-ROMs and Wonderland computer tapes showed children as young as 3 months subjected to explicit sex acts.

A number of recent cases illustrate how global these networks are. When authorities last year took down a child-porn Web site run by Wayne Camolli in Palm Beach, Fla., they were acting on a tip from Belgian police. They found that confederates of the notorious Belgian pedophile Marc Dutroux had sent pornography to Camolli, who was later sentenced to 16 months in federal prison after being convicted on one count of transmitting child porn. In Dutroux's dungeon-equipped house, police had found 500 videotapes, many depicting the rape of children, according to Belgian police investigative files obtained by NEWSWEEK.

In Italy, police with the help of Microsoft Italia last year ran a sting in which they "mirrored" a Russian Web site--believed to be connected to the current U.S. investigation--that was offering all manner of child pornography. Italian police have started criminal proceedings against 1,700 Italians for actively purchasing the pornography, and passed on to police in eight other countries details on other nationals who did so as well. Documents filed with Internic, the Internet registration agency, show that one of the Russian child-pornography Web sites--which was in English--was actually registered to someone in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A Ft. Worth, Texas, couple, Thomas and Janice Reedy, last year were charged with providing access to child-porn Web sites with names like "Child Rape" and "Children Forced to Porn" through hyperlinks on their own home page, making more than a million dollars in fees from it, prosecutors said. A bulletin board on the site included ads from parents offering to swap their children for sex to like-minded parents. They now face sentencing, having been convicted on more than 80 child-porn-related counts. Charged with them were two Indonesians and a Russian, the apparent producers.

An investigation of a child-porn Web site by U.S. Customs agents in the summer of 1999 reveals the appetite for photos of sexually exploited children. The Web site, known to Customs as the Tajik Express because the Web address was in Tajikistan (although the actual computer server was in Massachusetts), recorded 4,107 hits from different Internet user addresses in the first month, as well as 95,450 downloads of images. In its third month, the site recorded an astounding 147,776 hits from individual users, and the download of 3.2 million images. The site was later shut down at the request of Customs, and six people were arrested.

Many law-enforcement officers worry that the spread of child pornography, as well as the easy access to like-minded people via the Internet, has a "legitimizing effect"--making the pedophile believe that his own impulses are OK, because they are shared by so many others. That feeds appetites for this material, meaning more kids will be victimized. "They're all looking for fresh stuff," says FBI agent Peter Gulotta. "They're all looking for photos they haven't seen before."

But how many consumers of pornography actually cross the line to soliciting and abusing children? Overall, the evidence on child molestation in the United States is mixed: after a surge in the early '90s, the total number of substantiated cases of sexual abuse known to child-protection authorities declined by 31 percent between 1992 and 1998, from 149,800 to 103,600 cases per year. At the same time, however, the number of people incarcerated in state facilities for sexual assault against juveniles went up by 39 percent between 1991 and 1997, from 43,500 to 60,700. And American law-enforcement officials generally agree that there is a link between voyeurism and abuse. In 36 percent of investigations undertaken by the United States Postal Inspection Service since 1997, for instance, pursuit of child pornography turned up actual child molesters. Some of them were known pedophiles with criminal records; others were found, during the course of the investigation, to have been abusing kids.

For those who do act on their urges, computer technology has also become a powerful vehicle for preying on potential young victims. Michelle Collins is an online analyst for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit agency that gets government funding and which serves as a clearinghouse for tips about online sexual exploitation. With a few clicks of her mouse, she demonstrates how a predator might use the Internet. First she goes into America Online, then pulls up a window to search AOL "member profiles." She punches in the name of a town and types "student" under the "occupation" category. Just from one midsize town in New Jersey, up pop more than 100 personal profiles of AOL members who have voluntarily provided personal information about their interests and hobbies. To narrow the search further, Collins keys in kid-friendly search words like "Britney Spears." One girl notes that "My life sucks." (AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham says that the company always advises members not to post personal information they want to keep private, and provides parental-control software free. "We also don't allow children under 13 to create a member profile," he says.)

Now the would-be molester can punch a button that will alert him whenever the target kid comes online. When he or she does, the predator sends an instant message, and begins "grooming" the child. If she has mentioned an interest in soccer, the predator might ask what her jersey number is, so he can check her out at the local playing field. He'll play on her insecurities. "Girls in their teens can be very vulnerable," says Collins. "They may not think they're pretty enough or popular enough, and the predator will say 'You're beautiful on the inside,' and provide a relationship. The girl will think: 'He knows me for me'."

A few more clicks, and Collins is out of AOL and into an Internet relay chat channel for people interested in preteen sex. The creator of this group, clearly aware of the laws on child pornography, has written warnings not to post photos. But, as Collins explains, people who meet here can then make separate arrangements to trade illicit materials via the Internet. Some of these methods are extremely difficult to monitor. Many of the same kids appear again and again in the graphic photos posted on the Web or seized by police from offenders' hard drives. They turn up so often that Collins and her analysts have classified several "series" of photos: the Amber series, the Marion series, the Cindy series, the Kevin series and so on.

One group of recent photos involves two blond girls, aged roughly 4 and 7. Collins is trying to identify a man, who presents himself online as a married, middle-class American marketing agent, who has been disseminating the photos. But, she explains, the subject she is trying to locate is certainly not the man who made the photos. The chances of locating that person--and helping the two girls--"are slim to none." "It's so, so big," she says of the amount of pedophilia on the Internet.

Now that the problem is global, how much does an average American child have to fear? Once again, the statistical data are imprecise. A survey of 1,501 U.S. kids aged 10 to 17 conducted in 2000 showed that approximately one in four had had an unwanted exposure to some kind of image of naked people or people having sex in the last year. Roughly one in five kids had received a sexual solicitation or approach. One in 33 kids had received an aggressive solicitation, meaning that someone asked them to meet somewhere, or called on the phone, or sent them regular mail, money or gifts. And less than 10 percent of sexual solicitations and only 3 percent of unwanted exposure episodes were ever reported to authorities, such as a law-enforcement agency, an Internet service provider or a hot line.

The study and its authors caution, however, that parents and educators shouldn't jump to the most frightening conclusions. "Many of the solicitors, when their age is known, appear to be other youth and younger adults and even some women," says the report, supervised by David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "Not all of the sexual aggression on the Internet fits the image of the sexual predator or wily child molester. A lot of it looks and sounds like the hallways of our high schools." Overreaction by parents, Finkelhor and other experts say, may make teenagers less apt to speak up when a real threat appears. As it is, many kids may not want to tell their parents about sexual advances over the Internet for fear that the adult will cut off Web privileges. "Teens need to be talking to other teens," says Finkelhor. "As long as they perceive this as a dialogue between adults about how best to control them, they are going to be more resistant."

The vast majority of child molesters turn out to be members of victims' families or local communities, experts say. In the United States, the typical pedophile is white, male and well educated, with no criminal record. Most of these people are not part of an organized, international ring; nor do they snatch children off the street. Yet a family member or friend who photographs a child will often trade the images with like-minded people via computer, and soon the photos gain a life of their own in cyberspace--a form of child abuse that goes on indefinitely.

Luckily, in this war, technology cuts both ways. While the Web has fed the boom in sexual exploitation, it has also given law-enforcement authorities powerful weapons to fight back. "This same technology--the Internet--also is making it easier to catch people," says Finkelhor. Arrests for possessing and distributing child pornography have been climbing steadily, in part because federal agencies are putting more resources in this area. In fiscal year 1992, U.S. Customs recorded 57 arrests for possession of child pornography transported across borders, 48 indictments and 69 convictions. By 2000, those numbers had grown to 320 arrests, 299 indictments and 324 convictions.

FBI agent Peter Gulotta, who works for the bureau's Innocent Images task force hunting down online pedophiles, says the unit's primary investigative technique is to stake out chat rooms, posing as kids and waiting for potential molesters to engage them. "We're fishing in a pond full of hungry fish," he says. "Every time you throw a hook, you pull one out." In fiscal year 1998, the FBI opened up roughly 700 cases dealing with online pedophilia, most of them for posting child pornography, and about a quarter dealing with online predators trying to get children under 18 to meet with them. By 2000 that figure had quadrupled to 2,856 cases. Among them was that of a former Infoseek executive, Patrick J. Naughton, who pleaded guilty last March of crossing state lines with intent to have sex with a minor. Naughton had corresponded with an FBI agent posing as a 13-year-old girl in an Internet chat room called "Dad&DaughterSex."

Some critics think that big Internet companies like AOL and Yahoo bear at least some responsibility for the online child-porn boom. Both companies say they have absolutely no tolerance for child pornography, and cooperate with law enforcement to combat it. But companies can't monitor everything that goes on. Internet firms have also defended, in the past, their right to be conduits for adult porn--a multibillion-dollar business--and for hate speech under the First Amendment. Now a new law, signed by President Bill Clinton more than a year ago, will require electronic communication and computing services to report violations of child-pornography laws. If a company knows of a violation and fails to report it, it will face fines of up to $100,000.

That information will be sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Washington. Since the center launched its CyberTipline in March 1998, it has analyzed some 37,000 reports about child exploitation. (If you have information, call 800-843-5678 or e-mail All tips are categorized and passed on to federal law-enforcement agencies or to local and international police. One case began when the tip line received information about a posting requesting pictures of "young, white (10-13) year-old boys." "I'm new to this stuff and am a little skeptical about mailing a check to someone I don't know," the online message read. "I don't want to get in trouble with the cops. But I love naked children." The author of the site also offered photos of naked boys, aged 9 to 14, "from summer camp."

The perpetrator was tracked to a fraternity house in Burlington, Vt., where police took over the investigation. The cops went to the frat house under a pretense and found that the perpetrator, Jeremy Lacey, was spending his summer as a counselor at a boys' camp in New Hampshire. Police then obtained warrants, searched the frat house and the camp, and found 1,238 images on one of Lacey's zip drives. Later they retrieved thousands more, as well as photos of boys taken at the camp. In June last year, after pleading no contest, Lacey was sentenced to three years in jail on two counts of using a child for a sexual performance and required to complete an in-house sex-offender program while serving his time.

Despite such victories, analysts at the CyberTipline worry they'll soon be overwhelmed. Currently, they receive roughly 400 to 450 leads on Internet child pornography and child sexual exploitation a week, but they expect that to surge to 7,000 or more when new regulations enforcing the law passed last year go into effect. "Instead of treating every specific tip or lead, we're going to have to triage as you would in the ER," says the center's operational head, John Rabun. "The federal law-enforcement system is simply not equipped to deal with this kind of volume."

Law-enforcement officials around the world also lack resources and tools they need, even when they catch hard-core offenders. In Britain, seven men pleaded guilty last month to running the Wonderland Internet Club. Judging from clues like furniture and fashion in many of the photographs, investigators believe the Wonderland photos were relatively recent. They mostly feature American, European and Russian children. "Club rules excluded the killing of kids," says British police detective Alex Wood. They didn't exclude the depiction of torture. In a sound file on the hard drive of Wonderland's key organizer, Ian Baldock of the United Kingdom, investigators could hear a little girl being sexually abused and begging for mercy in English-accented tones, says Wood. Baldock got 30 months in jail for distribution of child pornography. But many of the Wonderland suspects have still not relinquished the passwords that would open all of their confiscated hard drives to scrutiny. Nor have experts been able to break the state-of-the-art encryption, based on KGB codes, that the Wonderland pedophiles used.

Back in Italy, Father Fortunato often finds himself depressed by the slow progress and official and public indifference. The priest helped to bust the major Russian child-pornography outfit, only to learn that the ringleader of the group had earlier been arrested and released in a Moscow May Day amnesty. When Italian authorities then brought charges of their own against the child-porn peddler, Dmitry Vladimirovich Kuznetsov, he called a newspaper to mock them. Kuznetsov told a reporter in Moscow that he had renamed his enterprise Lucky Videos in honor of Father Fortunato, whose name loosely translates as Lucky. He also promised to give child pornography away free just to spite the Italians. Kuznetsov has little to fear in making the taunts: child abuse is not considered serious enough in Russia to justify extradition.

Yet while sometimes frustrated, Father Fortunato is undeterred. After partially shutting down his child-protection hot line for two months to shame the Italian government into providing support for his campaign, he recently got funding and pledges of more cooperation from top Italian officials, including Prime Minister Giuliano Amato. Father Fortunato's modest organization is now turning its attention toward the possibility of "search and rescue" operations in conjunction with Interpol. "We need to find and free these poor children who are the victims of online pedophilia," he says. "We just need to free all those babies." The Internet may be a very useful instrument in those efforts. But for now, at least, it seems to work better for the global criminals that make Father Fortunato, in his weaker moments, want to pick up that machine gun.

Join the Discussion