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.”
Hinton also raises an almost unspeakable dimension that is rarely acknowledged: her own feelings of guilt. “I believe his life of molesting children began with his addiction to porn when he was a young teenager. He confessed to the authorities that the first time he molested a child was at the age of 14,” she says.
“In looking back, I have wished a million times that I had done more, asked more, searched more, found out more. I wish I had not believed his lies. The facts are out there. Porn is addictive. Child pornography is easily available online. I ignored those facts and fell into the trap that millions of wives fall into: we just turn and look the other way.”
Partners, spouses and families react differently to the disclosure of online child sex abuse. All but 0.5 per cent of perpetrators deny their actions. Other family members might also deny it and seek to sweep it under the carpet, says Flaherty. “Ninety per cent of these men are loving fathers, uncles, brothers and sons. They are in huge need of help to stop their behaviour.”
In Banks’s experience about half of wives and families continue to help a perpetrator through his recovery. The other half reject him entirely. “In many ways the spouse’s reaction is as if the man has died. Here is someone that you thought you knew, and yet you didn’t know him, because there was this secret aspect.”
Whichever way they react, “Families are blown apart by this. It creates absolute havoc. People take sides. Families react in exactly the same way as they do when they discover that their child has been sexually abused or that their husband, father or son is a perpetrator of child sex abuse,” says Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, the chief executive of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
John’s partner reacted with anger and rejection and got a court order preventing him seeing his children unsupervised. His employer put him on sick leave, then encouraged him to take voluntary redundancy. “People didn’t want to know me,” he says.
As gardaí swept through the house that morning, confiscating every device that might hold information, including the children’s toys and games, he felt utter despair. He didn’t know who had tipped them off, but he recalled his partner leaving his laptop open on the kitchen table, with a “child pornography” image on it – perhaps her way of saying she knew. The Garda found 2,000 images of “child pornography” on the device. John did not see his children again for months. When he eventually did, access was supervised.
John says he has never sexually abused a child in “real life”, and never would. But he adds that he now understands that by viewing images he has been complicit in child sexual abuse and has therefore encouraged its proliferation. Every year 50,000 new sexualised child images appear online, and 70 per cent of those are of children under 10, the European Commission estimates.
There are many forms of online child pornography or online child abuse. The viewing of images or videos is facilitated by message boards, often hidden in the “dark web”, on which online child sex abusers post images.
Another form is online grooming of children. “In many circumstances, grooming online is faster and anonymous and results in children trusting an online ‘friend’ more quickly than someone they had just met face to face,” according to a UK organisation, Parents Protect.
“People intent on sexually harming children can easily access information about them and they are able to hide their true identity, age and gender. People who groom children may not be restricted by time or accessibility to a child as they would in the real world.”
Friendly chatter turns to intimate sharing, then questions about sex as the perpetrator grooms, or manipulates, the child to the point where the child agrees to share photographs, engage in sex talk, or both.
When the child wants to stop, the perpetrator may then bully the child into performing lewd acts by warning the child that he will tell their parents about the sexual way the child has already behaved.
Online abuse follows the technology, so another sinister method, highlighted by the Dutch investigation and highly profitable for organised crime, involves webcams on laptops. Hundreds of thousands of poor children in developing countries are induced by promises of payment to appear online, interacting remotely with abusers who order the child what to do, or what is to be done to the child. Perpetrators pay electronically and show their faces, which is how the men were identified this week.
The extent of child pornography in Ireland is unclear. In 2002 Operation Amethyst, an investigation of child pornography by Interpol and the Garda, led to the investigation of more than 100 people. This resulted in a number of convictions, some of high-profile men.
In 2011 there were 161 recorded child pornography offences; there were 130 in 2012; and there have been 59 so far this year. But apprehended offenders are the tip of the iceberg. As Flaherty says, “There is a huge appetite for online child sexual abuse.”
Banks says that many men – and, increasingly, teenage boys – who view adults having sex online are lured to underage sites. Nota has also treated preteens.
How great a danger are users of child pornography in “the real world”? About a third of online perpetrators are child sex abusers in real life, Flaherty estimates.
Banks, a Cork-based psychotherapist, has worked with 1,000 perpetrators, the youngest aged 10 and the eldest in his 70s. He says remote-rape perpetrators are likely also to be sex offenders preying on children in the physical world.
“My personal view would be that if people who pay to see children commit lewd acts online haven’t already engaged in child sex abuse [offline], they are likely to do so.” This could make the men identified in the Sweetie sting extremely dangerous.
Those whose “porn addiction” develops into physical abuse of children often have issues in their past. “Men who sexually abuse children always have traumas in their childhoods,” says Banks. “Many have been sexually abused as children, while others have witnessed sadistic violence against their mothers.” They try to gain control of their own trauma when they were helpless children by putting themselves in the role of dominant perpetrator, he says.
During 18 months of therapy John concluded that his use of online child sex abuse imagery was indeed grounded in childhood, when he did not make an attachment with his mother, felt unloved and grew up feeling distanced from people. A solitary teenager, his sexuality did not develop naturally because of the exceptionally cold and repressive atmosphere in his family, where sex was so taboo that even the R volume of the encyclopedia was removed from the shelf because of its biological illustrations of reproduction.
“That’s where the secret started. Counselling was the first time for me to cry. I would advise men in my situation to seek counselling. I was crying out for help, I suppose. It’s not really about porn. It’s about how I grew up.”
His relationship with the mother of his children also grew cold, and they argued about property, but he didn’t want to leave his children, he says. After the disclosure of his online porn use, his desire to have a relationship with his children again, without supervision, led him to a legal mediator, who advised that he get a risk assessment from a Nota psychotherapist.
Eighteen months after the disclosure, and on the therapist’s recommendation that John was not a danger to children, a judge in the family court granted John unsupervised access. Today John is working on his relationships with his two children, who are now teenagers. He has spoken to them openly about what he did, but they don’t seem to want to know.
“I love spending time with children. Children to me are to have fun with and play games with, to be made laugh,” he says. Gardaí have not returned since that morning. Why has he agreed to the interview, which has clearly been painful? He begins to cry, then pulls himself together. “I guess this is my way of saying I am sorry.”
Clara Hinton’s blog is findingahealingplace.com. Nota is at 01-2145634
HELP: WHAT TO DO IF YOU DISCOVER ONLINE CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
If it’s your spouse or partner
Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre advises:
Speak gently with the person; don’t reject them. Tell them they need help, and make a plan.
Get support from the Rape Crisis 24-hour helpline on 1800-778888; or from One in Four, which offers perpetrators counselling by appointment: 01-6624070.
Be aware that anyone you contact might have to tell the Garda but will warn you first .
If it’s your child
Majella Ryan, director of clinical services with Cari, an organisation that supports children and their families, advises:
Stay calm. Do not let your child see your shock or disgust. If you need to calm down, say you will talk later. Explain that this is dangerous behaviour in which children are harmed, and that you will assist your child to get the help they need.
Contact your local HSE duty social worker. Depending on the situation, they might contact the Garda. Explain to your child that this is in their best interest, as the earlier they get help the better the outcome.
Don’t worry that your child will become a paedophile; this is rare, says Ryan. She urges parents not to let their fear prevent them seeking help. See Cari’s guidance at cari.ie, or calll 1890-924567.