DAUNTING

The Priest Exposing Italy’s Child Porn Addicts

Child pornography has risen more than 500 percent in Italy and one priest has dedicated himself to the fight against it.

10.16.16 5:15 AM ET

ROME—More than a quarter century ago, Father Fortunato di Noto warned that the internet would become a vile pornographic playground for pedophiles. He was right.  

The Catholic priest has spent the last two decades seeking out child pornography makers for criminal prosecution and trying to save the increasing number of child victims who are caught up in the multi-billion dollar industry. He often travels with a police escort because of the death threats against him, but he is not afraid. His efforts have helped free around 1,300 young victims and his vigilance has helped closed down more than three million lurid websites.  “Child pornography is a crime against humanity,” he says. “We have to look at the children who are suffering and take charge to try to help them.”

But looking isn’t easy. The images and videos are too horrific to even contemplate. Children, most so young they don’t even know what sex is, are forced to perform lewd carnal acts in front of a camera. Others, completely unaware of what is happening to them, are raped and tortured. In a few cases, a film’s dark ending implies that the child is sacrificed for the sadist’s pleasure. In others, the tragic end is more obvious. Even more difficult than learning about the details of these extreme fetish films is the cold hard fact that the phenomenon is growing. 

In Italy, the production and dissemination of child pornography has risen by 543 percent over the last five years, according to a report called “Indifesa” or “Helpless” released this week by the child protection organization Terre des Hommes. The astounding figure is based on police investigations, victims’ reports and surveillance.

Di Noto’s group Meter Onlus utilizes volunteers to comb the internet for sites that illegally disseminate and sell child pornography, which is characterized by acts involving children under the age of 14 who have not yet reached puberty.  More than 80 percent of the victims of child pornography found in Italy include young girls. And most of the child pornography involves sexual violence and rape. Only around ten percent centers on simpler images and videos of nude or semi-nude children, some taken without the child knowing, but the vast majority are of children in forced poses, according to the report.   

“The numbers are impressive and leave no room for doubt,” says Raffaele Salinari, president of Terre des Hommes Italy. “The prevention of violence against children must be a priority of the institutions and requires the commitment of everyone.”

When Father Di Noto started his battle, the worst offenders were Russian porn makers. Child pornography is still loosely controlled in Russia, making it easy to produce and possess the images and videos. “The Russians still own the market,” he says. “Only now they are worse.” 

The United States Department of Labor says that Russia’s inability to eliminate the “worst forms of child labor” have opened up the niche market in child pornography. “Children in Russia are engaged in child labor, including in work on the street, and in the worst forms of child labor, including being used in the production of pornography,” according to a recent USDLO report. “Laws do not prohibit possession of child pornography or benefiting from its proceeds. In addition, Russia continues to lack a mechanism to coordinate nationwide efforts to combat the worst forms of child labor, and it has no social programs specifically targeting this goal.”

There is little information—none in fact unless people are arrested—about just who the consumers are that drive a market that turns a profit of about $50 billion globally, according to the United States Department of Justice figures. 

In recent years mostly men from all walks of life have been arrested for possession of child porn in Italy. One prelate was found with more than 100,000 files of child pornography on his computer in Vatican City. A schoolteacher in Puglia was found with almost as much on his. According to Italy’s Postal Police who are in charge with investigating internet crimes, the consumers don’t fit any particular profile. In a sting operation that netted 12 consumers in Turin last spring, they were “artisans, entrepreneurs, professionals, workers and students,” according to an agent with Italy’s Postal Police who described the investigation to reporters. "They are completey unsuspected.” 

Salinari says that a stark increase in demand for this sick niche market of sexual entertainment means that pornographers go to greater extremes to produce it. Many of the young victims who appear in the images and films are runaways, migrants and refugees. According to the group Missing Children Europe, more than 50 percent of unaccompanied minors who disappear from refugee centers are gone within 48 hours of arrival, underlying a sophisticated network that literally harvests the most vulnerable, and least traceable children. But the report also points out that many other victims are daughters and granddaughters of the lurid people who make the pornography for a hefty profit. 

In August, Europol, with the help of Di Noto’s group and others that work for child rights, uncovered a network of pedophiles in a sting operation called “Operation Daylight” who were operating in the hidden domains of the world wide web called the “deep web” where content is not indexed and general rules of decency don’t apply. More than 600 suspected cases of child pornography, including snuff films in which the victims apparently died, were found online and on CDs and DVDs. Arrest warrants for 75 people were issued, including dozens of Russians, Romanians and Italians suspected of producing or distributing hard-core child pornography. Only a few of the suspects have been apprehended so far and no children were identified in the operation, which is still ongoing.  

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Father Di Noto says that a lot has changed in the quarter century since he first started trying to save children from sexual exploitation and violence. For one, child pornography is now the only regulated sector of internet content in Italy and the country’s National Centre to Combat Child Pornography Online (CNCPO) keeps a list of suspect websites that Internet Service Providers must filter. Italian law requires that ISPs “filter all websites” included in a special list produced and regularly updated by the CNCPO. All websites included in this list have to be made inaccessible to internet users by their ISP, or the provider could face hefty fines and even jailtime. The service providers are also expected to inform the CNCPO of any suspect sites, and they must provide an option on their homepages where customers can report child pornography to officials. 

On one hand, stronger regulations on what can be disseminated on the mainstream internet have stopped some activity. But in many other cases, the tighter controls have meant that child pornography is increasingly distributed in less traceable means. “That, of course, means that it is harder to stop,” Father Di Noto told The Daily Beast. “Pornography producers are going back to older technology like distributing the films on DVDs or using alternatives like the dark web for distribution.” 

Meter Onlus, along with Italy’s National Centre to Combat Child Pornography Online (CNCPO) regularly monitor websites, social network sites, including virtual storage upload servers and clouds, private Facebook pages and secret Twitter accounts where buyers can procure the pornography, which, if not on the deep web, is disseminated on CDs and DVDs. In the last year, they have also identified 73 of the country’s hundreds of refugee centers and camps from which children most often disappear.  

Giovanni D’Agata, head of child protection group “Gateway to Rights” who works with Di Noto, says that the recent arrests and reports represent conservative figures. “The phenomena is so deeply hidden that it is surely higher than even the official numbers,” he said, implying that as bad as the child pornography seems, it is probably much worse below the surface.