The Web's Dark Secret: Before the Internet Came along, Pedophiles Were Lonely and Hunted Individuals. Authorities Had Child Pornography under Control. Today Networks of Child Abusers Are Proliferating Worldwide. A NEWSWEEK Investigation

Article excerpt

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. …