Churches’ anti-porn efforts trigger grand jury investigations

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As a retired U. S. Army master sergeant, Phillip Cosby knows a few things about “shock and awe.”

And thanks to his efforts, so, too, do 32 businesses in the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area that have been accused of promoting obscenity.

Cosby, executive director of the Kansas City area chapter of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, has launched an effort that began on May 17 with an opening gambit that went off with military precision.

That morning, more than 100 pastors representing several denominations met at the Salvation Army Division Headquarters in downtown Kansas City, Mo., and then fanned out to deliver petitions to district attorneys and county prosecutors in six counties: Wyandotte and Johnson in Kansas, and Cass, Clay, Jackson and Platte in Missouri.

The petitions, which contained 20,300 signatures, prompted prosecutors to begin grand jury investigations in Wyandotte and Johnson counties. Although seldom used in Kansas, citizens’ petitions can compel prosecutors to begin grand jury investigations.

Since Missouri has no such law, much is left there to the energy and discretion of individual prosecutors. So far, the only common development across the Missouri counties has been the letters sent to area businesses to remind them of the obscenity laws. Beyond the letters, each Missouri county prosecutor has responded differently to the petitions.

“Clay County’s prosecutor did submit [the petition] to their seated grand jury — Missouri has seated grand juries all the time,” said Cosby. “In Platte County, the prosecutor there sent a letter to the only pornography outlet we could find there, a business that had a large inventory of pornographic material, and they decided to get out of that business. They decided to stick with the liquor business and get out of the pornography business.”

In Cass County, the prosecutor told Cosby that if the Belton police chief could put together a case, she’d send it to the grand jury. The Harrisonville Ministerial Alliance took things one step further by asking a video store to remove pornographic material — which it did.

“Jackson County is the toughest county,” said Cosby. “It has the largest number of pornography outlets of any of the [six] counties, and the largest number of registered sex offenders. They have a large problem in Jackson County, and the county prosecutor has not been moved to act.”

The Jackson County sheriff, however, is investigating and putting together cases, said Cosby.

The grand juries called in Wyandotte and Johnson counties must present their findings to district attorneys in 90 days. Between now and then, they will judge what is obscene according to “contemporary communities standards,” as called for by Kansas statutes.

Moral failure, criminal behavior

The coalition’s efforts are not only legal. Its members want to raise general awareness of pornography addiction and the resulting moral failure and criminal behavior.

“The legal strategy of prosecution of obscenity is only one part of a bigger strategy to awaken the community,” said Cosby. “The truth is we can get successful indictments and guilty verdicts, and close down every pornography outlet much like [when] prohibition was the law of the land. But people still wanted to drink, and eventually prohibition was a failed experiment.”

“Pornography addiction in our culture is similar,” he continued. “Yes, we could actually effectively address these brick-and-mortar places and shut them down, but if there is no sea change in the people in the community — in their hearts — it’s all for nothing. It’s all just bandages.”

The church-led anti-obscenity effort began more a year ago, said Msgr. Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., and a coalition task force member.

“The coalition met with community and church leaders over the past year and a half in a six-county area in the metropolitan Kansas City area,” said Msgr. Mullen. “They decided on an action in which they would gather enough signatures to call for the district attorneys to take action and see that the [obscenity] laws of the state were applied.”

More than 1,200 signatures were collected in Wyandotte County alone, he said. This was the first time in 40 years that a citizens’ petition of this kind had been undertaken.

“We had no difficulty getting the required signatures very quickly, which is a sign that a significant number of people in society believe that something needs to be done in this area,” said Msgr. Mullen.

Both Msgr. Mullen and Cosby were subpoenaed to testify before the Wyandotte County grand jury on July 18. Because the grand jury process is secret, jury members and those called to testify are prohibited from discussing the proceedings.

Pornography can be combated

Cosby actually began his anti-obscenity campaign three years ago, when a pornography outlet took up residence in a former Stuckey’s restaurant along Interstate 70 near Abilene. In the course of fighting this outlet, Cosby learned about Kansas’ obscenity and grand jury laws.

Many communities feel that there is nothing they can do to stop the spread of pornography, said Cosby, but that’s not true. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have not given pornography absolute First Amendment protection, as some believe. Rather, it is community standards that define what is considered obscene in a particular locale.

After Abilene, Cosby took his efforts to 13 other Kansas communities, including Wichita and Topeka. The national coalition brought him to the Kansas City area to lead anti-pornography efforts.

Cosby said there is a growing awareness of the harms caused by pornography.

“People are beginning to see the dangers of a highly sexualized culture,” he said. “People are becoming more and more aware that we’re in grave danger when it comes to criminal activity.”

“Pornography is the fuel that feeds fantasy-driven behavior, and people are becoming aware of that now, of the cause and effect,” he continued. “The darkness is great, but the revival of obscenity prosecutions is giving hope that there is something we can do about it as a community.”

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