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Visa CEO remains on Catholic boards amid child porn dispute

Alfred P. Kelly, CEO and Chairman of the Board, VISA. Courtesy photo.

As advocates point to evidence that Visa knowingly does business with child pornography distributors, Visa CEO Alfred Kelly continues to hold high-level leadership positions at several large Catholic institutions.

Kelly disputes the allegation, claiming that his company’s apparent entanglement with child porn distributors is a misunderstanding. And Visa suspended its relationship with some pornography websites this month, amid litigation for its role in child porn distribution.

But the company has not heeded calls from child safety advocates to cut ties with other companies reportedly distributing child porn online, and advocates point to letters from child abuse victims asking Kelly directly to address the problem.

As Kelly navigates that situation, he also serves as a member of the finance council for the Archdiocese of New York, and is a member of the boards of trustees for both Boston College and St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York.

And Kelly emphasized this month that his company would continue providing payment services for pornography sites “that feature adult professional actors in legal adult entertainment” — even those owned by a company with a history of child porn distribution.

Neither the Archdiocese of New York nor Boston College have commented on whether the allegations against Kelly and his company raise concern about his Church leadership roles.

Serena Fleites sued both Visa and pornography company Mindgeek last year, charging that her life was ruined when Mindgeek allowed on its site a pornographic video of her, which was shot by a coercive boyfriend when she was 13.

Fleites charges that Mindgeek profted by allowing tens of thousands of child pornography videos to be uploaded by users on the pornography “tube” websites it owns, which include Pornhub and YouPorn, and operate mostly with user-generated content, in the manner of YouTube.

Once uploaded, those videos are routinely reproduced and distributed on other porn sites, making them nearly impossible to eradicate from the internet — but Fleites said that even when she complained to Mindgeek about her image on the site, the company was slow to respond, and unhelpful.

The suit also alleges that Visa provided credit card processing services to Mindgeek sites and its advertising arm even when it knew the company was distributing child pornography.

Visa, Mastercard, and other financial institutions “were aware of actual instances of trafficking and [child sex abuse material]/child pornography and red flags of such content from their own due diligence and compliance functions,” the suit argues.

“Instead of insisting that MindGeek commercialize only legal consensual content, and comply with United States laws concerning the same,” Visa and other companies “elected instead to facilitate and profit from the MindGeek trafficking venture,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit mentions specific instances in which Kelly and other high-ranking executives were notified directly of child pornography trafficking on Mindgeek-owned websites — in meetings and phone calls, by several letters from anti-trafficking advocates and child sexual abuse survivors, and by email campaigns involving thousands of emails.

It also noted that payment processor PayPal severed its own relationship with Mindgeek “because it could no longer ignore the overwhelming evidence of MindGeek’s trafficking venture,” while “Visa continued to process payments for MindGeek partner channels even after one of its most popular partner channels, GirlsDoPorn, was indicted and then convicted for being a human trafficking venture.”

“When it did this, Visa was aware that it had made millions of dollars in profits from GirlsDoPorn and similar MindGeek partner channels and elected to continue to do so without any investigation or diligence,” the lawsuit claims.

“Visa continued to do business with MindGeek even after it was confronted directly with evidence of its complicity in MindGeek’s trafficking venture.”

Fleites’ attorney, Michael Bowe, has alleged that Visa and Mindgeek were “co-conspirators” in the distribution of child pornography and other non-consensual pornographic material.

The lawyer told The Pillar Friday that he believes Visa knew by the early 2010s that Mindgeek’s websites were “infested with child porn, and rape videos, and non-consensual sexual videos.”

And by 2015 and 2016, the lawyer said, “there were numerous high profile reports of horrendous exploitation on the site … So this stuff was notorious. Then you had repeated investigative journalistic reports by the London Times, the BBC and other American publications, all of which talked about how this stuff was all over the site.”

“So, to me, they knew. And they knew for a long time,” Bowe told The Pillar.

The lawyer alleged that in addition to its profit motive, Visa was reluctant to address allegations about Mindgeek because it could become seen as “responsible for policing the marketplace.”

“And I understand they don’t want to be dragged into the culture wars. I get that. But this isn’t the culture war. We’re not trying to end pornography. We’re trying to end rape and child exploitation being commercialized on pornographic sites … But Visa and MasterCard just don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. They don’t want to acknowledge publicly that they have any responsibility for this.”

A federal judge seemed to agree last month with at least some of Bowe’s assertions.

Judge Cormac Carney ruled July 29 against Visa’s efforts to extract itself from the lawsuit, deciding that “if Visa was aware that there was a substantial amount of child porn on MindGeek’s sites, which the Court must accept as true at this stage of the proceedings, then it was aware that it was processing the monetization of child porn, moving money from advertisers to MindGeek for advertisements playing alongside child porn.”

Carney did not formally find Visa culpable for the lawsuit’s allegation, but instead ruled against the company’s motion to dismiss the claims made against it in the suit.

Still, the judge did conclude that “Visa’s agreement to financially benefit from childporn can be inferred from its decision to continue to recognize MindGeek as a merchant despite allegedly knowing that MindGeek monetized a substantial amount of child porn on its websites.”

“The Court can comfortably infer that Visa intended to help MindGeek monetize child porn from the very fact that Visa continued to provide MindGeek the means to do so and knew MindGeek was indeed doing so,” Carney wrote.

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In response to Carney’s ruling, Kelly argued in a statement Aug. 4 that his company’s “role, policies, and practices have been mischaracterized.”

Kelly said his company had suspended its payment-processing agreement with some Mindgeek sites “in December 2020, and acceptance on those sites has not been reinstated.”

“The legal decision, with which we disagree, has also created new uncertainty about the role of TrafficJunky, MindGeek’s advertising arm. Accordingly, we will suspend TrafficJunky’s Visa acceptance privileges based on the court’s decision until further notice. During this suspension, Visa cards will not be able to be used to purchase advertising on any sites including Pornhub or other MindGeek affiliated sites,” the CEO announces.

Kelly said his company “condemns sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child sexual abuse. It is illegal, and Visa does not permit the use of our network for illegal activity.”

The company did not completely sever its ties with Mindgeek. “Visa can be used only at MindGeek studio sites that feature adult professional actors in legal adult entertainment,” Kelly stated.

For his part, Bowe acknowledged that Visa’s 2020 suspension of payments on Pornhub saw the porn company remove some child sexual abuse material from its network. But it didn’t stop the problem entirely, and Visa continued doing business with other parts of the company, he said, including its advertising sales arm.

“As of that [two weeks ago], someone could still upload a 15-year-old's videos onto Pornhub, because they aren't verifying who is in the videos,” Bowe said. “And there’s no question [Visa] knew about it; they were still doing business with a company that would have allowed that to go up.”

Advocates say the problem extends beyond Visa’s relationship with Mindgeek.

The National Center on Exploitation said this month that Visa was still doing business with other pornography companies which distribute child pornography.

“Visa long supported the monetization of child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, rape, and image-based abuse images found on MindGeek-owned pornography websites by continuing to process payments for the company despite being put on notice by NCOSE and others of the abuse. Now, Visa has taken an incremental step, but they must do more,” said Dawn Hawkins, CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, in an Aug. 4 statement.

The advocacy center said that while MasterCard implemented in 2021 “new policies for combatting sex trafficking and child abuse in pornography,” Visa had not.

“It is past time for Visa to follow Mastercard’s lead,” Hawkins said.

“If Visa cares about these issues as much as they say they do, Visa must suspend all payment processing services for XVideos, XHamster, and all pornography tube sites as well as their advertising arms, not only TrafficJunky,” she added.

“Again, Visa is acting due to immense public pressure. MindGeek’s main competitors, XVideos and XHamster, face similar allegations of rampant abuse and exploitation and Visa has been silent regarding them.”

An April 2021 essay in the New York Times recounted that videos on XVideos and XHamster  include “illegal footage of child sexual abuse” and “depict rapists, real or fake, forcing sex on children or adults who are trying to fight back.” Some such videos imply child sexual abuse by parents, the Times reported.

A spokesman for Visa told The Pillar Monday that Kelly “will not be commenting further” on the lawsuit.

Moral theologian Kevin Miller told The Pillar last week that if Visa executives knowingly enabled the monetization or distribution of child pornography, he believes they would “have pretty significant moral culpability.”

Enabling payments to the producers or uploaders of child pornography, or processing payments from advertisers in child pornography distribution, “is material cooperation, very nearly immediate moral cooperation, in an incredibly grave evil — I mean, I think child pornography is pretty much up there with murder, in the way it wrecks people’s lives — and of course the way it works in the minds of its consumers,” explained the theologian, who teaches moral theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

“This is about a millimeter away from immediate cooperation in this incredibly grave evil, and the only thing Visa is apparently getting out of is money,” Miller said.

“Mediate material cooperation in evil, depending on whether it’s proximate or remote, can sometimes be justified morally. But I don’t think that would even be remotely the case here.”

In his judgment, Miller said, “there is nothing that could possibly justify [such close] cooperation with that — there would not be some proportionate good of any kind that would be obtained by Visa that would justify that.”

But while Kelly faces pressure from child protection advocacy groups, it is not clear whether Church officials have weighed in.

The businessman has a long history of work supporting the Archdiocese of New York. Kelly became Visa’s CEO in 2016, and was elected the company’s chairman of the board in 2019.

In 2015, the businessman chaired the Archdiocese of New York’s planning commission for Pope Francis’ visit to New York City. And he has served since at least 2012 on the finance council of the New York archdiocese, which is empowered to set the annual diocesan budget, approve more important financial transactions, and oversee the work of the diocesan finance officer.

Canon law makes clear that members of a diocesan finance council are to be “truly expert in financial affairs and civil law, and outstanding in integrity.”

The Pillar asked the Archdiocese of New York whether allegations about Kelly’s decisions regarding Visa and pornography distributors has prompted internal reflection on the propriety of his role.

An archdiocesan spokesman told The Pillar that “since this is a matter still in litigation, we will have no comment on it at this time.”

Kelly also serves as a member of the board of trustees at both St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, and at Boston College, a Jesuit university in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Neither the seminary nor Boston College have yet responded to questions from The Pillar.

In April 2021, Pope Francis set new standards for officials working in the Vatican’s own financial administration offices. Among other norms, Vatican financial administrators are prohibited from “shareholdings or interests of any kind in companies or firms operating for purposes and in sectors contrary to the Social Doctrine of the Church.”

Editors’ note: After the publication of this report, The Pillar became aware that Kelly is a trustee at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York. The Pillar updated its report, and has contacted the seminary for comment, but has not yet received a comment.

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