Child pornography: collateral damage
Three Irish men were identified this week by an international sting operation as having tried to access online child pornography. What fate awaits perpetrators and their families?
Catastrophic consequences: 90 per cent of the people who carry out online child abuse are loving fathers, uncles, brothers and sons. Illustration: Eoin Coveney
‘It was a huge burden. I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t really about the 13- and 14-year-old girls. It was about being in this zombie-like state.”
John, a bodybuilder and keen cyclist, says he dealt with the stress of shift work and a crumbling relationship by escaping into child-sexual-abuse websites. To him, the images were of maturing pubescent physiques; he came across them after starting with adult pornography. The more extreme the images became, the worse he felt.
“It was a compulsion to find the perfect body,” he says. “When I felt real self-loathing, I didn’t care. I hated myself for what I was doing. In this world of escapism I lost respect for myself. I knew it was wrong, but I was caught in a cycle. It was as if another personality took over.”
Nick Banks, the chairman of Nota, the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers, which offers therapy for sex abusers in Ireland and the UK, says: “It’s as if they have two identities: one in the real world, where they aren’t abusing their daughter or daughter’s friends, and another in the virtual world.”
One morning three years ago, while his wife and children were staying at his parents’ house, John was awakened by two gardaí standing over his bed. “I confessed right away. It was almost a relief, as if I wanted to get caught.”
John is not his real name, and he no longer views any sort of “pornography”, he says.
The term “child pornography”, which is the official description of the crime, is inappropriate, according to Mary Flaherty, chief executive of Cari, Children at Risk in Ireland, as every online image or video of a sexualised child is a record of abuse, making the viewer complicit. This is why it is illegal.
Banks says: “It’s really a form of internet addiction. People get trapped in a bubble where they move from adult porn to teenage girls and then younger and younger [children], not thinking of these girls as being the same age as their own daughters, or even younger.”
This week a child-protection charity, Terre des Hommes Netherlands, said it had identified three Irish men, all living in Ireland and two of them fathers, who had attempted to access child pornography or abuse online. The men were among 1,000 people identified in an international sting operation that the charity staged.
The Irish men were seeking to pay for virtual sex with 10-year-old Sweetie, a Filipino child. Sweetie wasn’t real; she was an online avatar created by Terre des Hommes Netherlands to snare the men and publicise the problem. When Sweetie appeared online, 20,000 men in 100 countries swarmed the site over a period of about 10 weeks; 1,000 of them were seen via their own webcams and identified.
The charity set up the sting to highlight the “tens of thousands” of child victims of “webcam child-sex tourism” in the Philippines and other developing countries. Men, often in the developed world, pay children, usually in developing countries, to perform sex acts on camera, either alone or with others. Many of the children are forced into these acts by third parties or family members, and must engage in the practice for hours at a time every day, according to the director of the charity, Albert Jaap van Santbrink. Others are forced into it through extreme poverty.
“Long-range rape” is spreading like an epidemic, says van Santbrink, with 750,000 perpetrators online every minute of every day around the world, according to the UN and the FBI.
Interpol has yet to report the three Irish perpetrators to the Garda. Their families are still unaware of what might happen if gardaí visit their homes in the kind of early-morning raid John experienced.
The primary victims are of course the abused children. But those close to the perpetrator suffer too. “Nobody ever thinks that this is going to happen in their home,” says Clara Hinton, a US author, life coach and mother of 11 who lived with a paedophile for 40 years without knowing. “Especially when that husband and father is a well-respected, loved religious minister, husband and father,” she says.
Hinton’s young daughter discovered her father looking at online pornography 15 years ago, but mother and daughter believed his excuse that he was “researching porn for a sermon”. Two years ago he was finally apprehended and charged with 250 counts of child sexual abuse, for which he is serving 30 years in a US jail.
“Prison is now part of our lives. As one of my daughters said, ‘I got tired of people asking what my father does for a living, so one day I blurted out, “He’s a child molester, and he’s in prison for the rest of his life.” ’ The pain is raw, and as the mother of these children my heart bleeds a little bit more each day for them.”