January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

It could be innocent, or it could be ugly. Either way, for the moment, Pete Townshend is caught in a nightmare—well-deserved if he’s guilty, unfairly painful if he’s telling the truth. On Jan. 13, 16 officers from Scotland Yard’s Child Protection Command pulled up to The Who guitarist’s suburban London mansion, searched for more than five hours, and walked out with at least eight computers and audio and video tapes. That evening a glum and unshaven Townshend, 57, was driven to the Twickenham police station and questioned on suspicion of possessing, making and incitement to distribute indecent images of children. He was questioned for 80 minutes, then released without charge, agreeing to return if the investigation warrants.

Two days earlier, after Fleet Street’s Daily Mail had published a story saying that an unnamed rock star was among people under suspicion in an international antipedophile sweep, in-the-know reporters descended on his home. “I am not a pedophile,” he told them. “On one occasion I used a credit card to enter a site advertising child porn. I did this purely to see what was there.” His interest, he said, stemmed from his research into the autobiography he is writing that delves into his own early childhood experiences with sex abuse. (The title character in Tommy, The Who’s 1969 landmark album, largely written by Townshend, had been abused by an uncle.) “To fight against pedophilia,” he said on Jan. 11, “you have to know what’s out there.” Two days later, says his attorney John Cohen, “we approached the police and we said, ‘We need to meet.’ ”

Townshend is one of more than 7,000 suspects in Britain whose names have been passed on to Scotland Yard by the FBI, which is investigating some 320,000 suspected pedophiles globally—among them lawyers, doctors and police—through credit card transactions over the Internet. Cohen says that the suspicions surrounding Townshend involve a single visit to a child sex site in ’99, when the guitarist charged $5 to a credit card to view, but not download, an indecent image. “He certainly did the act,” says Cohen. “He’s been totally up front about it.” Townshend, who admits to an interest in adult pornography, told reporters that on the same occasion he made three or four unpaid visits to other child sites.

In an interview with Britain’s The Sun, Townshend said that he had been outraged when he first discovered kiddy porn sites six years ago while surfing the Net with his son Joseph, then 8. Model Jerry Hall said Townshend had advised her how to keep her kids from stumbling onto such sites, adding that he “is the least likely profile of a child abuser it is possible to construct.” If charged and found guilty of possessing child porn, the divorced father of three could face up to 10 years in prison. Now home with his musician girlfriend Rachel Fuller, 28, he has received messages of support from Mick Jagger, Sting, Elton John, Bono and other fellow rockers. “My gut instinct is that he is not a pedophile,” said bandmate Roger Daltrey, “and I know him better than most.”

Jill Smolowe

Pete Norman in London

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