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interview: cardinal william keeler

In June 2001, you spoke to the bishops' meeting in Atlanta and denounced AT&T for profiting from adult films. Why?

At the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I raised the issue of concern that a mainline corporation, one that had been admired by generations of Americans, one that seemed so much in the mainstream of good things in our country -- AT&T, Ma Bell -- was in the business of merchandising hardcore pornography. And I thought it was something shocking, as [it was] to others who work with me in the Religious Alliance Against Pornography. It's an ecumenical inter-religious group. Together we said, "This shouldn't be."

Tell me about the last 30 days, about the push that the Religious Alliance Against Pornography has been involved in.

One of the concerns that we have in the Religious Alliance Against Pornography is that we represent many religious groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Salvation Army. [They] are all very strong supporters of what we're trying to do. But it may not be appreciated for just how broad a spectrum of the population we speak.

So we've been asking our leaders around the country to drop a note to AT&T, to let them know that what's happening under the sponsorship of AT&T is very offensive to many, many people who have a faith in God and a concern about morality.

What do you hope to accomplish?

We hope that by this effort, those who lead AT&T will say, "Wait a minute, we are in the wrong business. We should make a shift that respects the beliefs, the feelings of so many good people out there who have been our customers, who are our stockholders."

Keeler is co-chairman of the Religious Alliance Against Pornography (RAAP), an interfaith coalition of religious leaders that has protested AT&T's distribution of hardcore pornography through its satellite and cable divisions. Keeler discusses the campaign and the meeting he had with AT&T Chairman C. Michael Armstrong. He also discusses RAAP's meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft. This interview was conducted in August 2001.

There will be a lot of people that will argue that the growth of pornography or adult entertainment has been so extraordinary over the past decade that the genie is out of the bottle, that pornography is mainstream now. Why the growth?

I can't put a finger on a specific reason. ... The government, over the last few years, has relaxed its prosecution of cases. There has been a commercialization that has used sexuality in so many ways to try and sell its wares. All one has to do is open a magazine or turn on a television program and look at the advertising.

See, there's been a drift across the board in society. We certainly have a responsibility now to blow a whistle, to say, "Watch out," to individuals and to society as a whole. And what's come to me from parents is, "How am I going to raise my children in this kind of an environment?"

Why the effort to focus on mainstream companies?

When a company like AT&T, which has won the hearts and allegiance of so many people, gets into this business, it's a way of legitimating it, saying that it's OK, it's alright. That's the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval we don't want to see put on this kind of business.

On March 21 of this year, you met with the new attorney general, Ashcroft. Can you tell me what the purpose of that meeting was?

The Religious Alliance Against Pornography came with a conviction that we should, as citizens, voice our concern to government officials responsible for prosecuting the laws that are on our books of our country, to call attention of the attorney general to these laws that are extant against pornographers, and to say, "Please do something about it. They're on the books, they should be enforced." It has to do with the very character of our country.

Did the attorney general define his point of view about the role of the Dept. of Justice, as a prosecutor himself?

No. ... He saw the moral ill, and also the legal ill that pornography can be for our country, especially as it's spelled out already in the laws. And, I think, he has a personal commitment in that area. How far he will be able to go will depend on the kind of people that are in local prosecutors' offices around the country.

What did you ask Mr. Armstrong [C. Michael Armstrong, AT&T's chief executive officer] to do?

We've been asking AT&T to get out of the hardcore porn business. Ma Bell shouldn't be selling smut.

What was Mr. Armstrong's response?

AT&T, I think, still looks at it as some kind of legitimate business because there are other people out there making money in the same arena. But we just say, "Look, you're a company of great prestige. And you're being in it gives to pornography, hardcore pornography, a legitimacy that it does not deserve."

Did he define the type of pornography that they do provide, and define that there is some stuff that they will not air?

AT&T's representatives at this meeting indicated that there are some worse things out there. But, I think, there was a concession made that what they have is pretty raw.

When a company like AT&T, which has won the hearts and allegiance of so many people, gets into this business, it's a way of legitimating it, saying it's alright.

Define what was the reason that they felt they had to carry the Hot Channel and the other erotic networks that they play?

One point that was alleged to us is that GM was in the same business, and they had to keep up with GM. Since that time, GM has publicly announced that it's spinning off this aspect of the business, so it's moving away from the association that it has had with the hardcore pornography.

Did they seem embarrassed about saying that this was a business decision?

I had a sense that those who spoke with us, or at least one who spoke with us, saw this as a simple business decision -- did not see it in the parameters of morality that we were presenting, but was looking at it more as a dollars-and-cents kind of decision. ...

... Did they sort of say, basically, "You don't understand the realities of business"? Or did they say to some extent, "We apologize. It's not what we want to be in. Maybe we'll get out of it at some later point, but right now, at this moment--" What was the actual response?

I had the sense, as we moved along with the meeting, that there became a little greater openness of mind than in the initial discussion. It was acknowledged that those who were there around the table represented a significant group of people in the United States. It was acknowledged that they would study the issue some more. However, there was no concession made at that point. But I did hear very clearly said that, "We will continue to consider this issue."

Do you think they -- Mr. Armstrong specifically -- knew what he was carrying?

He had come to a recent knowledge of it. And I think that helped him to see the depth of our concern.

Can you be more specific about that?

No, no. But, he did know that was pretty nasty stuff. ...

... Everybody that we talked to out in L.A., as far as the people who are making this stuff, say, "Listen, this is my right. You might not like it or not, but this is legal." And there's other people, people from the former Justice Department, who say, "What are you talking about? Penthouse magazine is illegal. The stuff on HBO is illegal. The reason it's being done is that nobody is doing anything about it. The laws are on the books." ... Is this legal or isn't it?

There's no question that what is obscene material is illegal. And maybe there can be some quarrel about whether a particular piece is obscene or not. But there's no question that such material that's truly obscene and absolutely repugnant to most people is illegal. There's not a question about that.

Did [Ashcroft] sort of draw that line -- what is legal, what isn't illegal?

No, we talked in generalities of hardcore pornography. For example, if hardcore pornography is involved in interstate traffic, that kind of thing, or if it is sent through the mail, there's no question about that. If...what hurts children is done, there's no question about that being illegal. It's not protected by the Constitution. It's not protected free speech. It's something else. It's something that is offensive to so many people.

But where is that line? What is hardcore? You can buy hardcore on every magazine stand in America.

I don't know about that. I'm not one that goes around magazine stands looking through magazines. ...

... Renewing the Mind of the Media, what exactly is the program, and why is it important?

Renewing the Mind of the Media is a program that's important. The largest church in the United States, the Catholic Church, undertook this program a couple of years ago as a way of trying to educate their own people about some basic moral principles that apply to what's happening now in our culture. In the past year, in maybe thousands of parish churches around the country, people were given the opportunity to contemplate, "What can I do in my own family, what can I do in this community, what can I do personally to try and better the situation that we have with our media and with the appearance of pornography and violence?" ...

In the last 10 years or so, there is enormous thirst for this type of material, because a lot of people are making money. They call it a $10 billion industry. Why the thirst?

One of the things we know about pornography -- and this is attested to by a number of experts from all kinds of backgrounds -- is that it is addictive. And what it causes in its consumers is the need to keep consuming, and to look for something even more provocative than what was seen before, in order to keep the same level of stimulus and of interest. This can help explain, at least in part, the industry. The porn industry has grown so dramatically in recent years.

But, again, the folks in California that we talk to who make this stuff, say, "It's my First Amendment right, this is America."

When a fire breaks out, our response is to say, "There's a fire there, and it's going to hurt a lot of people." And what we see here is a moral fire. It's consuming individuals, destroying families. And no matter what people may say about from another point of view, the commercial should yield to the moral. What's right can't be compromised. And we have such a fire blazing here, we really have to summon every resource we can to try and contain it.

Does it say anything about society right now that an AT&T or GM or DirecTV or all the others out there that are now involved in distributing this stuff?

I have a hunch that there are people at the very top that don't understand what they're into. There are people making decisions based on the dollars, without realizing how awful the content is that they're involved with. They're too busy with their business to take a look at the product.

And I've had people in Hollywood, and in our own local TV industry, say, "Well, we're making products and showing things I wouldn't let my own children see, I wouldn't permit into my house." That tells me something about these people who are more sensitive. But I think some of the people at the top in this way in which so much in the entertainment industry has been centralized, look only at the bottom line, and do not look at the content. And they're not even concerned about it. They're only interested in profit.

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