Uncle Sam and private citizens go after child pornography. For years, Americans objected to child pornography but little was done. Now, federal efforts are yielding results: about 300 arrests in three years. Private groups, too, are taking steps, but the porn network's size is still unknown.

For years child pornography has been one of those subjects on which most Americans could agree: They were against it. But it flourished nonetheless, and little effective action was taken against it. Now one major action by law enforcement authorities is under way to try to crimp the traffic in pornographic books and videos that feature children. It's a sting operation that has thus far resulted in more than 100 indictments across the United States, with more prosecutions expected, according to US Attorney General Edwin Meese III. Over the past three years, some 300 people have been arrested in the US on charges related to child pornography, as a result of this and other efforts. Cooperating in the sting are the US Justice Department, Postal Inspection Service, Customs Service, and US attorneys in several major cities.

A four-year-old citizens group founded to fight pornography will announce a nationwide plan Wednesday to organize Americans opposed to child pornography into an effective force to counter it. Details have yet to be disclosed, but the Cincinnati-based group - National Coalition Against Pornography Inc. - is expected to demand that the US law enforcement and judicial systems be more vigorous in enforcing local laws against child pornography, and in punishing people convicted in connection with it.

Proponents of the two moves are optimistic that they will make a major dent in the segment of international child pornography activities conducted in the US.

Much of the reason for past inaction was that experts could not agree on how big that segment was. Now action is going forward, even though debate is still intense as to whether a broad network actually exists.

Says one expert who prefers not to be identified: ``I don't think anybody worth his salt can tell you whether it's 500 children or 5,000'' who are involved annually in pornography in the US.

The public's intolerance for child pornography is clear. An August 1986 Gallup poll found that 9 in 10 Americans wanted to ban magazines, movies, and videos showing children in pornographic activities.

For people engaged in child pornography, unlike those dealing in the adult version, the First Amendment right of free speech offers virtually no shelter. A 1982 decision by the Supreme Court, notes Howard Davidson of the American Bar Association, ruled that ``child pornography was not entitled to any First Amendment protection.''

The government sting involves setting up dummy corporations that, from overseas addresses, send explicit ``catalogs'' to Americans suspected of buying child pornography. Those who order ``merchandise'' become the targets of the sting, and indictments are sought against them.

Although similar strategies have been used against individuals involved in child pornography, Mr. Davidson says none has been this massive in scope.

Mr. Meese says searches of the homes of some suspects yielded ``substantial evidence of child sexual abuse by some of the targets.'' Child pornography, he adds, is ``the abuse, the rape, and the molestation of real children, captured on film.''

Experts on the subject agree that what Meese calls ``a network type of activity,'' international in scope, exists by which child pornography is exchanged among pedophiles. The principal disagreements are over its size and whether child models come from the US or abroad. Much of the material that pedophiles purchase, says John Sullivan, ``is used in the production of new child pornography material,'' with the one-time buyers becoming sellers of the new material. Mr. Sullivan is chief of the child pornography protection unit of the Customs Service.

Meese says he hopes the prosecutions announced thus far this year, combined with 200 indictments obtained over the past two years, will put a dent in the US child pornography trade. And by stopping child pornography, he says, the US ``will be making substantial'' progress in ending molestation of children.

Jerry A. Kirk says researchers have documented that child molesters ``use such material to break down the defenses of children,'' to convince them that engaging in sex acts ``is permissible behavior'' for children. He notes the rise in reported child molestations of recent years and says an increasing number of Americans ``are emerging literally across the country wanting something to be done.'' Mr. Kirk, an ordained Presbyterian minister, is founder and president of the National Coalition Against Pornography.

Kirk and his organization have decided to focus on hard-core obscenity and child pornography. ``We believe,'' he says, ``these are a source for molesters using these materials.''

Kirk says the fight against pornography, whether of children or adults, ``no longer is a `conservative' issue. It's a conservative, moderate, and liberal issue. It's an issue for everyone who cares about children, about women and families. ... Today it's really become a public safety issue,'' with pornography leading to molestation.

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