A backlit computer keyboard is seen in this illustration photo. With statistics showing pornography usage up during stay-at-home orders, Catholic leaders and other advocates are urging the federal government to crack down on vendors. (CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters) 

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A former colleague of Attorney General William Barr is backing a letter from three Catholic bishops asking Barr to aggressively pursue anti-obscenity prosecutions in the wake of increased traffic to online pornography sites with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"With five a year, you'd put the porn industry out of business," said Patrick Trueman, president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, in a May 15 interview with Catholic News Service. Trueman is a former Justice Department obscenity prosecutor.

On April 30, Archbishops Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco and Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa, Oklahoma, wrote Barr to request stepped-up prosecutions.

"The department rightly pursues human traffickers; however, virtually unchecked proliferation of pornography fuels the demand that frequently results in commercial sexual exploitation. Unprecedented, unlimited, and anonymous access to pornography via modern technology has led users to seek more and more extreme videos," their letter states.

"Thus, nonenforcement or lax enforcement of obscenity laws against producers and distributors may provide a gateway for this demand to metastasize, increasing the incidents of trafficking, child pornography, other abuse, and broader unjust conditions."

The prelates are the chairmen, respectively, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, Domestic Justice and Human Development, and the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

The Justice Department did not respond to a Catholic News Service request for comment.

The bishops' letter followed a March 9 request by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, for a federal investigation into Pornhub, one of the largest online porn sites, which is based in Canada and registered in Luxembourg. The site has reported that its traffic was up 22% in April compared to the month before.

The bishops wrote Barr after the site announced "free" subscriptions to its "premium" content -- a common marketing ploy used to hook site users into unexpected monthly payments.

"Pornhub's incredible reach has a much darker side than the image of harmless fun that it tries to project," Sasse wrote. He cited a case from last October in Florida in which the abductor of a 15-year-old girl was charged with uploading more than 60 videos of her exploitation to the site.

"Indeed, the problem of Pornhub streaming content featuring women and children victims of sex trafficking reached the point in November that Paypal cut off services for Pornhub, refusing to facilitate this service any longer," Sasse added.

"I'm so glad that the bishops are encouraged to confront him (Barr) on this," said Trueman. "What the bishops are asking is for the attorney general to do his job. This is a public health crisis, leading to addiction, the breakdown of marriage and abuse of children."

"I know (Barr) believes in doing these cases," he added. "He's been sidetracked with so many political issues."

Last Dec. 4, four members of Congress, including Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, who is now White House chief of staff, wrote Barr to complain that they thought President Trump was ignoring the promise he'd made during his 2016 campaign to enforce anti-obscenity laws.

As a result, "the harms of illegal pornography have continued unabated, affecting children and adults so acutely to the point that 15 state legislatures have declared that pornography is causing a public health crisis." Co-signing the letter were Republican Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri and Brian Babin of Texas.

"The current pandemic is exacting a heavy and widespread emotional, social, and financial toll in our communities," the bishops' letter concludes.

"In the face of the pandemic, the church expresses her solidarity with all who are struggling or alone. In a March 27 reflection, Pope Francis affirmed our common 'belonging as brothers and sisters' in the midst of crisis and reminded us that, despite the demands of distancing and isolation, 'we are on the same boat' and are all 'called to row together. ... (S)o we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.'"

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