NEW YORK—In a full-page open letter published today in The New York Times, 36 prominent members of the clergy followed up on a similar letter sent in September by 46 state attorneys general with a demand that Village Voice executives immediately shut down the adult section of its Backpage.com online classifieds website.
“It is a basic fact of the moral universe that girls and boys should not be sold for sex,” read the letter’s opening sentence.
“Arrests of adults using Backpage.com to sell minors for sex have been reported by the media in a number of states, including Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin,” the letter continues.
Responding to an Oct. 17 statement by Backpage asserting that is has implemented new safety protocols for the adult section, including the “suspension of some limited areas of our Personals and Adult sections while we build up our safety defenses,” the clergy stated in a press release issued today to coincide with the open letter, “Backpage.com asserts it has put in place ‘effective measures’ to prevent child prostitution from occurring on its Web site, yet it is still happening.
“According to the letter from the Attorneys General," the PR continues, "even Backpage.com Vice President Carl Ferrer has admitted this, stating ‘the company identifies more than 400 'adult services' posts every month that may involve minors.’ The Attorneys General maintain that it is ‘very difficult to accurately detect underage human trafficking,’ and therefore call on Backpage.com to ‘eradicate’ child sex trafficking on its Web site by shutting down the Adult section. The clergy join them in this call.”
Backpage.com, in a reply posted this afternoon to its blog, pushed back against the public onslaught by lawmakers and clergy.
“Neither government officials nor God’s advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or speech,” it said. “In August this same religious coalition asked for a confidential meeting regarding Backpage.com. We readily agreed. As we prepared to share our information, we were informed that only four members of the coalition would attend. Village Voice Media then offered to fly, at our expense, all members of the clerical delegation to New York for the conference.”
According to the blog post, instead of taking Backpage.com up on the offer, “The clergy used a public relations firm in Washington to reprint in the New York Times a modified copy of the letter the clergy sent to the Village Voice in August. The version that was printed today had been altered, and left out both the coalition’s request for a private dialogue aimed at solutions, as well as Backpage.com’s acceptance of the request, and offer to fund air travel for all interested clergy.”
The rest of the post is spent recounting the “millions of dollars and dedicated countless resources” Backpage.com has put to “protecting children from those who would misuse an adult site,” as well as remarks by Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Mission and Exploited Children (NCMEC), who praised Backpage.com for taking “major steps to police its ads to help curb sex trafficking. Backpage has been aggressively reviewing their ads and trying to remove those ads that are unlawful and suggest they involve the sale of kids for sex, [and] has reported to us 1,600 ads that they believe are suspicious.”
The post did admit, “Adult advertising, as found on Craigslist, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Yellowpage.com and numerous other web sites is complicated by those who seek to exploit this technology,” but added, “If someone is caught shipping contraband through the Post Office, we do not shut down the U.S. mail.”
Among the multifaith coalition of clergy committed to taking down Backpage.com are mainline Christians, Catholics, Jews, evangelical Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Humanists and other moral and religious leaders. The group was convened by Groundswell, Auburn Seminary's social action initiative.