Visa CEO Alfred Kelly serves as board member on several Catholic councils including the Vatican Council for Inclusive Capitalism steering committee. Photo from Facebook

Visa CEO remains on Catholic board amid controversy

By  Anna Farrow
  • September 8, 2022

A New York Catholic corporate titan who is mired in the legal scandals of a Canadian porn merchant turns out to also be one of the poster boys for the Vatican’s latest social justice adventure.

Alfred Kelly is the CEO of Visa, making him more than just your everyday card-carrying Irish Catholic. Getting to the C-suite by way of a private Catholic university education, he has served for a decade on the Finance Council of the New York archdiocese. He chaired the 2015 Papal Visit Committee of the archdiocese after being invited “over a beer” by no less an eminence than Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

He’s a board member of Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. He’s a trustee of Boston College. Get the picture?

Zoom out. There he is front and centre on the steering committee of the Vatican Council for Inclusive Capitalism, even as his charge card company fights a lawsuit resulting from its profitable business dealings with Montreal-based porn purveyor Mindgeek. The 25-member Steering Committee is an august group that, in addition to Kelly, includes the CEOs of Bank of America, Dupont, Johnson & Johnson, Mastercard, BP, Merck, Bayer AG, Motorola and Salesforce.

Established in its current iteration in 2020 by Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the Vatican’s “capitalism with a human face” council seeks to move “the private sector to create a more inclusive, sustainable and trusted economic system.” Early marketing of the council suggested that its creation responded to Pope Francis’ call to apply the principles of morality to the business and finance sector.

Trusted economics? Business morality? Well, the Catholic news website The Pillar published an article in late August on a lawsuit called Fleites v. Mindgeek. Mindgeek, with its head office on Montreal’s Decarie Boulevard, owns and operates numerous pornographic websites such as Pornhub, RedTube and YouPorn. Fleites is Serena Fleites, a young woman who, at 14, sent a sex video to a boy she had a crush on. The boy shared the video. Someone uploaded it to Pornhub. Like a line of dominos, Serena’s life click-clacked through to despair and alienation.

In 2021, the Fleites v. Mindgeek lawsuit was filed. Kelly’s Visa corporation was named as a co-defendant. In May 2022, Visa moved to be removed from the suit. But on July 29, Judge Cormac Carney, of the District Court of California, rejected the request. Why? Because, Carney noted, Visa made a conscious corporate decision to make money from child porn. In fact, Mindgeek wouldn’t have made money — or at least not as much — without Visa being there to grease the wheels with credit card transactions.

“It is simple,” Judge Carney wrote. “Visa made the decision to continue to recognize Mindgeek as a merchant despite its alleged knowledge that Mindgeek monetized child porn. Mindgeek made the decision to continue monetizing child porn, and there are enough facts pled to suggest that the latter decision depended on the former.”

By alleged, The Pillar reports, Carney meant a slew of communications — some sent directly to Kelly — pleading with Visa to do the moral thing and get out of the Mindgeek game, at least as far as child porn went. Among the Visa-critical voices was Bill Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management. The day after Carney’s refusal to let Kelly and company out of the Fleites-Mindgeek suit, Ackman laid out the ramifications in a Twitter thread. He chided Kelly for speaking of Visa’s “noble purpose” when Visa made the decision to facilitate the reintroduction of illegal content to the Internet by allowing the purchase of ads and premium subscriptions on Mindgeek’s websites.

Visa is incorporated in the state of Delaware, where “directors can be held personally liable if the company’s product or service causes harm and the board has provided inadequate oversight to monitor the potential for harm.” Ackman, for one, thinks the harm is “enormous.”

Kelly was appointed as CEO of Visa in 2016 and subsequently elected to serve as Chair of the Board in April 2019. So if there is harm, as Ackman and the lawyers for Serena Fleites believe, it is impossible to see how he can evade responsibility.

For Catholics, the question becomes what responsibility the Vatican bears for allowing Kelly to remain on its “morally improved capitalism” council with his corporate feet so deep in the Mindgeek muck. Visa is a corporation that has been vocal about its adherence to environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. It burnishes its claims with its connection to the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, yet at the same time has been found by a judge to be potentially corporately liable for entanglement in the monetization of child pornography, and therefore child exploitation and trafficking.

The council website features a photo of Pope Francis standing alongside, among others, Mark Carney, Edward Breen, CEO of Dupont, and Hiro Mizuno, the UN’s Special Envoy on Innovative Finance and Sustainable Investments. The website also has well-placed inspirational quotes from Pope Francis such as: “An Inclusive Capitalism that leaves no one behind, that discards none of our brothers and sisters, is a noble aspiration, worthy of our best efforts.”

The council invites businesses to “join them” in signing up to “actionable commitments aligned with the World Economic Forum International Business Council’s Pillars for sustainable value creation — People, Planet, Principles of Governance, and Prosperity — and that advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

The language signifies a wholesale endorsement of ESG standards. De Rothschild has purposely moved her movement for inclusive capitalism into the corridors of the Vatican with the understanding that Pope Francis’ imprimatur grants a moral authority to the objectives and actions of the participating corporations.

In like fashion, Visa claims that economies, “that include everyone, uplift everyone everywhere.” But how does including Mindgeek as a merchant with access to Visa’s lucrative services uplift vulnerable children?

Will the Vatican or the communications team at the Council for Inclusive Capitalism publicly acknowledge that there is a problem with a company whose CEO sits on the steering committee of the council? Will a statement be issued denouncing pornography and the evil exploitation and trafficking of children implicit in the manufacture and distribution of child pornography?

For Kelly there is a grim irony. Had he remained at American Express, where he worked for 23 years, he would be far removed from his troubles at Visa. American Express, according to Ackman, “does not do porn.”

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