‘I started looking at images of children online when I was 16’

Understanding sex crime: The offenders, the victims, the neighbours, the hunters

The offender


There was a knock on the door. Jack was woken by the Garda in his bedroom. His mother, Jane, returned from her morning walk and found the police in her garden.

“They told me that they had identified our IP address and that someone in our house been downloading child sex abuse material,” says Jane. “I thought they had the wrong home. My daughter told me it was Jack.” Jack is in his early 20s and lives with his parents; his sister is few years younger.

Jack told his father. “It was so hard,” says Jack. “But I also felt like a weight had been lifted, because I had wanted to talk but how could I say what I was doing? I wanted to run, hide and die. If I hadn’t been caught, I’d probably still be doing it today.”

Jack is a sex offender who has engaged in both “contact” and “non-contact” abuse. He was 12 when he first abused physically a younger child. Within a year of this, a trusted adult sexually offended against him.


“I was terrified. I had trusted them; now, they are not in my life. Then, in my mid-teens, I offended against a child under 12 and I abused again soon after.

“I think I first started looking at images of younger children on the internet when I was about 16. I didn’t go in search of the pictures; I stumbled across them through a series of redirects. That was all on the surface web, but I soon moved on to the dark web. I knew it was illegal to make sexual images or videos of children, but I didn’t know it was illegal to watch them.”

Jane had no idea where to turn for help. The family hired a solicitor who, through a contact, referred Jack to One in Four, a charity that supports those affected by childhood sexual abuse through advocacy, therapy and prevention services. Jack entered One in Four’s Phoenix programme, which provides therapeutic interventions for admitted child sex offenders.

Phoenix is an intense group programme, says Jack. “We learn what led us to offend, why we offend and what our triggers are: for me, it is isolation and loneliness. Before I was caught, I had a tiny group of friends that I could never properly connect with. I didn’t do well in school, I wasn’t academically bright and I was bullied and excluded a lot.”

Jack’s relationship was his family is severely strained and his parents are angry with their son, while still trying to support him and get to the root of the problem that caused him to commit sexual crimes against children.

“My younger sister has barely spoken to me,” says Jack. “A few of my close friends know; one or two have drifted away, but most have stuck by me, even if it is uncomfortable for them at the moment. One of them wanted to hit me but could see I was improving since I was caught.

“I started dating a girl a few months after I was found out; it was really hard for her to take and to understand but we have worked through it. I was always attracted to people my own age but struggled to talk to women. I became used to these images of abuse. There were children from all over the world in them, but when you’re looking through the screen, it feels like there’s a barrier between you and the children you are watching. It’s easy to think you’re not causing harm.”

His mother


Jane had always spoken to her children about not looking up pornography on the internet, but it had never occurred to her to talk to them about not looking at videos or pictures of children, or that one of her children would abuse another child. “We spoke openly and I told them about how nobody had a right to touch them, and we never hid anything from them.”

The Garda took a statement from Jack and later, formally charged him. He pleaded guilty and his case is being processed through the criminal justice system. He has been advised that a jail sentence is likely.

Jack has shattered his family’s trust and they are worried about being banished or attacked by their community. “I want to wrap my son up in cotton wool,” says Jane.

“And then I want to smash his bloody brain in. I would be gutted if he goes to prison; he is not streetwise at all. I am eaten up by guilt every day. We have only told a few close family members and, thank God, they have not turned their backs on us. We will be publicly identified in the papers but we had no say in this, it has landed on our door. We are looking at getting extra security for the house.”

When somebody commits a sexual offence, the responsibility for monitoring them falls back on their family.

“Looking back, I wish I had thrown out the f***ing internet,” says Jane. “I scream at people who say they just can’t get their child off the computer – yes, you can. Word has to get out in schools that we need to talk about preventing people from becoming abusers. I would like my son to have a normal life but life will never be normal again.”

The professionals


One in Four's Phoenix programme began out of a demand from victims of child sex offenders attending therapy at One in Four. It is focused on preventing further victims, says Eileen Finnegan, clinical director of One in Four and chair of the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers.

“Victims were saying: ‘Hang on, we are in here, going through therapy, and the people who offended against us don’t have to go through any therapeutic process. We may or may not want them to go through the criminal justice system but it doesn’t seem fair that they are not held accountable.’

“We need to work in all areas of sexual violence as a pathway for prevention. We don’t work with those who deny their crimes, and participants on the programme must acknowledge they have done wrong and commit to understanding what motivated them to do it.”

The Phoenix programme has strict reporting guidelines and, if the therapists are concerned for any reason, they contact the Child and Family Agency Tusla immediately. Participants are almost all males and a growing number of referrals are for men who have downloaded or bought videos and images of children being sexually abused.

Far from the “dirty old man” stereotype, between 25 and 33 per cent of abusers are under 25; many are teens.

Offenders say it is easy to offend from their own home; Finnegan says parents need to be more aware if their child – including an adult child – is isolated and spending a lot of time on the computer in their room.

“We need to talk more about this and we need to hear from everyone involved before we can understand it. We need to ask why our children are growing into sex offenders. What choices are they making that lead them to this?”

Only last month, a year-long investigation by the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) found multiple deficiencies in how child and family Tusla handles allegations of child sex abuse; the 308-page report found that a gap between Tusla’s policies and what is happening on the ground was placing children at risk.

Finnegan says that she has built up good relationships with Tusla but that it is based on personalities rather than on procedure and policy and that this needs to change.

The neighbour


The 2002 Savi report found that 27 per cent of people – just over one in four – had experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Garda statistics are not completely reliable and have tended to underestimate the number of victims who report.

In 2017, more than 2,945 sexual offences were recorded to gardaí, but this represents only the number of women, children and men who came forward. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has stated that perhaps only one in 10 victims report the crime. The national rape crisis helpline took 12,400 calls in 2016, of which 77 per cent were from women. Twenty-two per cent were from men and 0.41 per cent were from trans people.

Sex offenders live among us. Those who are convicted, once they serve their sentences, are released into the community. The most recent figures show there are 182 known offenders living in Ireland. Forty-two live in Dublin, 43 in the midlands and southeast, 32 in the southwest and 22 in the northwest and Westmeath. All are male.

Seventy-two per cent of these have been convicted of rape or sexual assault, and 7 per cent of possession of pornography. The remainder have committed offences such as attempted rape, soliciting or trafficking.

Garda cannot disclose the location of sex offenders, but the sex offenders we know about are just the tip of the iceberg. Most are never reported or convicted and live among us as an invisible threat.

Paul Moore (52) is a serial sexual offender. He has been jailed six times including for three rapes and three sexual assaults. A probation service report said that he had resisted all efforts to rehabilitate him, expressed no remorse and posed an indefinite danger to adult women.

At his last sentencing hearing in March 2017, for sexually assaulting a woman on the Dart in Dublin, the judge said that his inability to stop offending was a matter of real concern but that the legal system does not allow for preventative sentencing.

Moore was jailed for 18 months with a further 18 months suspended. He was released in June and returned to his home, an apartment that he owns in Mountjoy Square, Dublin 1. He is bound to a night-time curfew for the next 10 years.

Alice, a resident in that building, says she is frightened for her safety and that of other women in the building. “He is living in this block, which is not very big and has one lift and one set of stairs; you can’t avoid having contact with him.”

“He has repeatedly offended and shown no remorse, so how can we reintegrate him?” she asks. “The law doesn’t allow us to detain people who pose a likely risk but perhaps we need to talk about that. He poses a danger to women. Why do we have to let him out?

“There is a woman walking around now who doesn’t know he may hurt her, and we are letting him walk the streets knowing he is likely to reoffend. I think there is a case for indefinitely locking up sex offenders until they engage in and successfully complete a sex offenders treatment programme.”

Alice believes the State should tell people if a potentially dangerous sex offender is in their area or building. “What about our rights? I do understand the fear of vigilantism but he is still walking around and hasn’t been touched, and Irish people are respectful of the law; I don’t think we take it into our own hands and we don’t approve of mob justice.”

Most days, Louise walks her dog the University College Dublin campus in Belfield, south Dublin. The large campus has significant green and forested areas. "Last year, a woman approached me and warned me that she had spotted Michael Murray, a serial rapist who had been recently released from prison, on the Belfield campus.

“I don’t like the ‘hang ’em high’ mentality of the tabloids, and I know most sexual violence is carried out by people known to the victim. And I know he has a right to be [in] a public place, but how could I not feel afraid? His crimes are awful, and I don’t believe it would be a huge transgression of his human rights if he had to stay away from places of education.”

Murray’s presence in the affluent suburb of Mount Merrion area was extensively reported in the press. Posters went up in the area warning locals about him.

The politicians


Local Fine Gael councillor Barry Saul says that Murray’s presence “provoked widespread concern” across local clubs and amongst mothers and fathers in the school. “People were afraid to go into local parks or on normal walking routes, especially close to where he was known to be living. There was a lot of work to done to defuse tensions behind the scenes with the residents association, local councillors and the Garda.

“Most people do believe that, once you have served your sentence, you should be left alone, but there is an exception for sexual crimes and paedophilia. This man was close to a local primary and a local secondary school.”

Independent councillor Cieran Perry represents the Cabra-Finglas area of Central Dublin. He has long been active in anti-fascism campaigns and left-wing political movements and he, too, believes communities have the right to know if a convicted sex offender is living in their midst.

Perry first began speaking out on the issue when a paedophile priest moved in opposite a school. “The Garda knew but nobody in the community did. The unacceptable part was not that he was living there but that nobody knew.”

In 2014, serial rapist Trevor Byrne moved into Cabra having broken his bail conditions on a number of occasions. Byrne's arrival provoked community concern, and Perry helped organise a vigil, which he claims helped cool tensions in the community.

“People saw [Byrne] around even though we knew he had moved up to Cavan. We were told he was being constantly monitored, but . . . the community should be told there is a sex offender in their midst. They give up their rights when they become a sex offender. They’re human but their rights cannot trump those of the majority.”

The idea that vigilantes will burn sex offenders out is patriarchal and patronising, says Perry. Yet some people are taking the law into their own hands.

The predator hunters


In recent years, a new phenomenon has emerged whereby self-styled "predator hunters" pose as children on the internet and lure men into meeting them, before exposing them publicly. In the UK, one such group, Silent Justice, has resulted in the prosecution of RTÉ producer Kieran Creaven.

Diana and her husband run a website which purports to be a database of convicted sex offenders in the UK and Ireland, and their locations. "Our website was so that people could send in reports about predators from the papers, and we verify that information to make sure the wrong person is not targeted." Diana previously spoke to the Waterford News and Star and agreed to be interviewed by The Irish Times on condition of anonymity.

About a year and a half ago, Diana started posing as a “decoy”. “We have volunteers who donate fully-clothed pictures of them as teens. Then we set up a profile on one of various apps, sit back and wait.”

Within minutes, men get in touch. “Posing as a child, we make our age clear. They have five messages to back out of talking to us. If they carry on a conversation, they know they are doing it with [what they think is] an underage child. Stage two: it turns sexual. Stage three: we arrange an organised meet.

“We are looking for charges: inciting a child to perform a sexual act, sending indecent images. We gather evidence carefully. Our job is to calmly approach the offender and get them to admit their crime.”

Resistance is met by the legally dubious concept of “citizen’s arrest”. Then they wait for the Garda.

None of the cases has come to court in Ireland. The Garda and the probation services are concerned that evidence could be compromised by predator hunters, that the wrong people may be mistakenly targeted and that child abusers could be driven underground and become harder to monitor.

“We have asked the Garda to work with us and they have said no,” says Diana. “We have brought them evidence that has not been followed up on. They are not proactive and people do not know if they are living beside a sex offender; there should be public access to a register.

“If the system wasn’t failing, there wouldn’t be a need for us.”

The re-normalisers


But those within the system say it can work. Pace, a part of the probation services, has worked with prisoners and ex-prisoners to help reduce reoffending since 1969. Until about 2011, they refused to work with sex offenders. Now they run three programmes for adults convicted of sex offences: Safer Lives, Foothold and Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). No sex offenders are involved in any of Pace's residential projects, training programmes or social enterprises.

This small aspect of Pace’s work is part of an inter-agency approach to managing released offenders, involving some or all of the probation services, the Garda, Tusla, the HSE, the Irish Prison Service and local authority housing.

Dr Lisa Cuthbert, chief executive of Pace, says that there is no typical profile for a sex offender. “They are all ages, classes, backgrounds, and the vast majority are male. We work only with people who have been assessed as being at high-risk of reoffending sexually. We see people from all over the country, who are referred to us from probation services.

“That said, the large majority of our work is with people who have not sexually offended but have been to prison for drugs or other offences, and many of them have been victims of abuse themselves, so we understand the harm that abuse causes.”

Foothold is a floating support service that works with offenders who have the most complex needs, and who may be in denial and estranged from their families.

Safer Lives is a group work model which helps address the issues that resulted in the offence and works to prevent further offending.

Circles is a model whereby volunteers meet with the offender on a regular and ongoing basis to minimise their risk of being isolated – a proven trigger for reoffending – and to hold them accountable, on an ongoing basis, for their behaviour.

The reality is everyone who goes into prison comes out, so we need a community that can respond in a way that is measured and appropriate

Gerry, a retired man, is one of nearly 60 people who have been trained as a volunteer with Circles. “I have no personal history with sexual crimes except hearing about other’s experiences: in all our wider circles, someone had been affected by it,” he says. “I was motivated to sign up because I could see the potential to prevent new victims. I could also give someone a chance to renormalise their life and no longer be a threat to society.

“We typically meet once a week in a venue where we talk openly and confidentially. We have been trained to spot red flags and we report back if we have any concerns. We do not keep any secrets.”

But should these people be in the community at all? “The salacious headlines in the tabloids make the monitoring much more problematic,” says Gerry. “They heighten risk. We don’t have a society that incarcerates people for life, and they have to go somewhere.

“Those convicted may pose less risk than the ones we don’t know about at all. On an emotional level, I don’t want them near me or my family or children, but having gone through the training, I don’t think people are aware of the extent of supervision and monitoring that [sex offenders] are subject to. I think a register would facilitate the reactionary lynch mob leaders.”

“The reality is everyone who goes into prison comes out,” says Cuthbert, “so we need a community that can respond in a way that is measured and appropriate.”

International studies suggest that CoSA, which also operates in some other countries, reduces reoffending rates. The average recidivism rate for all prisoners is 62 per cent. Between 25 and 30 per cent of sex offenders commit further crimes but only about 1-5 per cent of these are sexual crimes; this is the lowest recidivism rate of all crimes.

The daughter


Between 70 and 80 per cent of people are abused by someone known to them – most often a father, stepfather, brother, cousin, friend or neighbour. Victims can be reluctant to come forward for fear of being disbelieved, seeing a family member end up in prison, or because they are acutely aware that tabloid headlines and social attitudes will can banish the family of the offender.

Often they are not supported by some members of their own families.

Aisling is in her mid-20s. She was diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 14. She attempted suicide a few years later. “Dad took me to therapy every week, wailing and crying: ‘Help my baby!’ But he was playing mind games with me.

“I told my granny that he had been abusing me for 10 years. She’d long harboured suspicions about her son-in-law. Granny told my mother, and she was heartbroken. She truly had no idea, and she felt like a failure. She rang him and said: ‘you’re caught, don’t come home tonight’.

“The garda came and took my story; she had all the time in the world for me and told me that she would be there with me if I wished to see him prosecuted, but she advised me that it is a horrible, horrible road to go down. Separately, the forensic evidence-gathering by the child sexual abuse specialists was deeply, deeply traumatic; I was interrogated like a criminal.

“My father hadn’t admitted the extent of his crimes and I knew I could not live through a trial. But I also didn’t want my brothers only knowing their father during prison visits.”

“My father was a spoiled, indulged little prick who never learned how to self-soothe, and didn’t have the skills to change his behaviour. We need to give people the capacity to deal with their issues, so they don’t harm children. From the moment it comes out, there needs to be a case worker who can lead the family through it. My poor mum made so many mistakes. I didn’t get help for years because of long wait lists. Finally, I spent an intensive year in therapy.”

Aisling says she is happy now, but “wasted 10 years”. “So many people, including a close relative, stopped speaking to me when this came out. I am afraid to speak about it with people for fear it will be the last conversation we ever have. I can’t visit my relatives in dad’s home county because he lives there now, and when I go back, he is there. His family never think to ask him to leave when I am there, so I don’t feel safe.

“My brothers can visit, but I feel like I have been banished. I am not allowed to speak: my truths have been banished. I still have to keep secrets. Why are we always the ones who pay the price? He was never even interviewed by a Garda.”

Aisling says she doesn’t have the answers about what should happen to child abusers. “But if there is a searchable register, and he just gets moved on, we’re doing exactly what the church did with the priests: moving them on over and over again. That didn’t work.”

The Kenneally ten


Bill Kenneally (67) is serving 14 years in prison for a series of sexual crimes against 10 teenage boys over 30 years.

Colin Power (47) was one of 10 victims of Kenneally who came forward and – when the Director of Public Prosecutions decided to prosecute – went public.

“As kids, we were the best of friends, but we never spoke of what he did to us and we lost contact,” says Power. “People knew we were being abused and they did nothing. Today, children are still being abused and we do nothing.”

Colin says the vast majority of trials happen when victims come forward or when Interpol pass information to the Garda, but argues that the Garda need to be more proactive. “We got no support except for a liaison officer. He was a nice guy but there’s only so much he could do. Where were the HSE and the State agencies? We didn’t get help and support; we had to get it ourselves, independently.”

Colin believes that parents have a right to know if a sex offender moves into their area. “I don’t defend vigilantism but mob justice isn’t what the paedophile hunters do: they document and record everything and hand it over to the Garda . . . but the Garda are waiting for years before going through evidence.

"We know of a man who complained about Kenneally to the Garda and only heard back when his story went on Morning Ireland. Maybe these paedophile hunters can save even one or two kids, or maybe men will be afraid to go online in case they're busted by them. Abusers are living in housing estates, sometimes near schools, and parents are not being told. Tag them if we must, especially if they don't go through rehabilitation in jail."

Last month, the Government approved draft legislation to tag high-risk sex offenders.

The sisters


The Kavanagh sisters – June, Joyce and Paula – are among the small percentage of survivors whose abuser was brought to justice. They grew up in Ballyfermot. Their father, Kevin Kavanagh, was a prolific child rapist and abuser who extensively abused children outside the family home. The sisters’ earliest memories are of being raped and sexually assaulted by their father, and it continued into their mid to late teens.

He was finally caught in 1989, after a relative he abused tried to take her own life, and the sisters disclosed what he had done to them.

“Mam threw him out,” says June. “She wanted a hitman. She was going around asking for a gun. She went into depression and shrivelled. Our dad went to the priest who got him a job teaching arts and crafts to children. They got him an apartment over the school and told my mother that she should take him back because he was a harmless old man. Then we got a letter looking for his belongings back, and the list he gave us included binoculars. He was starting on the next generation so we decided to push for prosecution.”

The sisters believe he deliberately sought out a vulnerable young woman who he could control and manipulate, and he found it in their mother, who met him when she was 16. They see her as one of his victims.

Kavanagh got a seven-year prison sentence and died a year after release. The sisters published the bestselling book Click Click, which documented their abuse, in 2011. This year, their follow-up, Why Go Back: 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse, combines their personal testimony with academically rigorous research about healing from sexual crimes.

In the book they take survivors of sexual abuse, and their families, through the process of disclosure and healing. They explain the harm caused by childhood sexual abuse, and write about the criminal justice system and how to overcome the difficulties of accessing therapy.

The Kavanagh sisters have a self-awareness found only in people who have been through deep trauma and have emerged the other side. They are deeply empathetic and far from glum, regularly cracking jokes and disarming people with their wicked Dublin humour.

The sisters are now fronting a campaign encouraging survivors of sexual abuse to speak out by contacting their local politician, telling their story, and urging investment in therapy and reforms of the criminal justice system.

“With this crime, victims carry the shame, guilt and responsibility,” says June. “Admitting you have been abused is like confessing to a crime. We felt cheated when he was convicted because he was protected with anonymity, so we decided to waive ours and name him. We were being told, yet again, to keep this a secret. F**k that. We decided not to tell our story behind a silhouette.”

There has to be a way where these children can reach out and ask for help. Imagine being in that position: wanting to abuse a child. There is no help for you

“Years later, we can see some change in the courts system, but not enough,” says Paula. “The system is set up to cater for [the accused], and once you make your statement, you’re just a witness. From listening to other victims, the courts cause more pain. You go into court and they may as well be talking Greek. They get concurrent sentences. Their standing in the community is considered, even if they were raping the children in that community. Repeat offenders are handed suspended sentences.”

The majority of abusers do not agree to therapy in prison, but Paula says that her father’s victims didn’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to go through it. She feels that the abusers should be at least made to sit in the room for therapy, and that their release date should be tied to full participation. Sex offender treatment programmes have been proven to reduce the number of children who are sexually abused.

“Who knows what could happen if they got a bit of help?” asks Joyce. “We can’t lock them up and throw away the key. He had such a wasted life. He must have been so damaged to keep going when we were crying, and in pain, and saying stop. We found forgiveness for ourselves.”

Children are abusing other children at a younger and younger age, warns Paula. “There has to be a way where these children can reach out and ask for help. Imagine being in that position: wanting to abuse a child. There is no help for you. No way to speak out. Our education system needs to build up life skills and talk to children about sexuality and relationships.”

Therapists, including Finnegan, are urgently calling for an Irish rollout for Stop It Now, a UK helpline which encourages men or their families who are concerned about potentially harmful behaviour to get help before they abuse a child.

In April, a report in the Irish Sun on the Kavanagh sisters spoke of their "evil" dad, calling him a "sicko" and "vile". The sisters have repeatedly warned that this kind of language puts children at risk by isolating offenders, and driving them away from services that could prevent sexual crimes against children.

The sisters don’t believe there should be a publicly accessible sex offenders register. “What we need is a new Savi report. Why are we talking about pushing the offender to the next neighbourhood? Isn’t it better that you tell your nieces, nephews, sons and daughters to stay safe than burn the f**ker out of it? What does that solve? It won’t stop abuse.”

Some names have been changed


If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact:

The Samaritans: 116123, jo@samaritans.ie

Rape Crisis Helpline: 1800 778888 rapecrisishelp.ie

Childline: 1800-666666 childline.ie

Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children: 01-6794944

HSE counselling services: 1800-235234

One in Four: oneinfour.ie 01-6624070

Cari (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm): 1890-924567 helpline@cari.ie

For details of sexual assault treatment units, see hse.ie/satu

You can report concerns to Tusla, and learn more about how the support process works, at tusla.ie/children-first/report-a-concern/

To report online child sex abuse material, see hotline.ie

The Department of Justice’s Office for Internet Safety is at internetsafety.ie

For more information on volunteering with the Circles of Support and Accountability programme, see CirclesIreland.ie/volunteer