Super Bowl Furor: Pete Townshend Defends Halftime Act Amid Child Porn Accusations

A flyer accusing Pete Townshend of being a sex offender has been circulating in Miami.ABC News
A flyer accusing Pete Townshend of being a sex offender has been circulating in Miami.

The question followed several softballs tossed to British rocker Pete Townshend ahead of his performance this Sunday at the Super Bowl:

How does he feel about criticism of the NFL's choice of a former British sex offender as its halftime act?

Townshend, co-founder of The Who, seemed prepared for it. He barely skipped a beat when he answered that the criticism saddened him, largely because he's misunderstood.

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"I feel like we're on the same side…. I've been working as an advocate and agent of this kind of area of research and fundraising for over 40 years."

He and the NFL have been skewered by groups like Protect Our Children and Child AbuseWatch, which have sent letters to the NFL saying, "Inviting Townshend to play is a blatant disregard to the values of American families and a slap in the face to victims of child sexual abuse."

The organizations distributed 1,500 leaflets describing Townshend as a sex offender.

In 2003, the 64-year-old rocker was reprimanded by British police and placed on the country's sex offenders' register for five years after he admitted that he paid to view images on a child-porn Web site in 1999.

According to Townshend, it was all in the name of research: in a 2003 statement, he said that while it was wrong for him to visit the site, he did so because he needed information for a campaign he was launching against Internet child porn and for his autobiography. (In the past, he has said he believes he was sexually abused as a child.)

Townshend insisted the criticism was misplaced. He said, "common sense vigilance is the most important thing, not vigilantism."

He added, "I have my own story that some of you know, and anybody that has any doubts about whether I should be here or not should investigate a little further. Everything you need to know, funnily enough, is on the Internet."

Moments before that comment, he and frontman Roger Daltry performed "Pinball Wizard," from the 1972 rock opera, "Tommy." The title character is sexually abused by his Uncle Ernie. Townshend and Daltry performed before a crowd of 500 journalists and NFL officials.

Townshend has struggled to distance himself from child pornography. In 2002, he wrote a report about child porn and posted it on his Web site. He compared the path to free "pedophilic imagery" to a "free line of cocaine at a decadent cocktail party: only the strong willed or terminally uncurious can resist." Townshend subsequently removed the report from his site; it still lives on

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After a four-month-long investigation in 2003, in which police examined more than a dozen computers Townshend used, officials decided neither motive served as a defense to access the images. As part of an official cautioning procedure, Townshend's fingerprints, photograph, and a DNA sample were taken and he was placed on Britain's sex offender registry for five years.

His listing on the registry expired in 2008. That was the same year Townshend and The Who were lauded by President George W. Bush at the Kennedy Center Honors. But for Kevin Gillick, president of Protect Our Children, Inc., a child protective charity in Brevard county, Fla., Townshend's penance and the NFL's endorsement aren't enough.

"The NFL shouldn't have picked him in the first place," Gillick told "The damage was done when they picked him. And apparently, they didn't even consider this."

Gillick dismissed Townshend's excuse for accessing child porn and questioned his motives.

"[Research] is one of the most common excuses given by people who visit kiddie porn sites," he said. "These sites are most often visited by people who have a sexual attraction to children, just like people who go to grocery stores most often do so to get food. And of course, he paid for this, so he supported the industry when he did that. When you pay for child porn, you place an order for its next victim. I'm sure Mr. Townshend is intelligent enough to understand that."

Gillick pointed out that even after Scotland Yard cautioned Townshend, the rocker got into further trouble. In 2006, Townshend published a story on his Web site called "The Comedian," which graphically described sex between a 16-year-old boy and girl. Townshend removed the story after children's charities in the U.K. expressed outrage, and apologized with a statement on his site: "I'm afraid I have had to end this Blog. I'm so sorry for those of you who were beginning to enjoy it, but it has upset certain people, and I sincerely do not wish to offend anyone."

Gillick's organization has distributed hundreds of flyers around Miami's Sun Life Stadium protesting Townshend's participation in the Super Bowl.

Protect Our Children joins another organization, Child AbuseWatch, in condemning the NFL for this year's choice of halftime performers. Child AbuseWatch president Evin Daly published an open letter to the NFL in early December, writing, "Inviting Townshend to play is a blatant disregard to the values of American families and a slap in the face to victims of child sexual abuse."

ABC News' Sheila Marikar contributed to this report.