Online grooming: Fund gardaí to hunt paedophiles – One in Four
Citizen justice by vigilantes is tackling problems unsolved by authorities, argue some
There are no official proactive measures in Ireland to catch men seeking to groom children online. File photograph: iStockPhoto
Vigilante action against paedophiles has dominated international headlines in recent days, but police worry about the implications of citizen justice, and not just in Ireland.
“I don’t know where to start with what’s wrong with this behaviour. My biggest concern is they get the wrong man and his life is ruined for no good reason,” one superintendent said.
Others argue the groups are filling a gap left by the justice system.
They have been active in the UK for years. Last year, incredibly, 44 per cent of prosecutions for online grooming used evidence from vigilante groups.
They have only recently started to operate in the Republic.
A tiny team
There are no official proactive measures in Ireland to catch men seeking to groom children online. And because the Garda Computer Crime Investigation Unit operates a tiny team which is overwhelmed with dealing with child pornography cases, there is little chance of this changing in the short term.
The videos generated by the vigilante groups are stark. “I’ve done something stupid online,” says a man in one of them. “I’ve ruined my life.”
The people filming him agree. “You’re speaking to a 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, a 13-year-old, a 14-year-old,” one of them says. “Is there any other kids?”
None of the children actually exist. They are adults from the self-styled “paedophile hunter” group Silent Justice who pretend to be children as a means of engaging potential predators in conversation online.
Once a person agrees to meet with the “child” in real life, the group turns up, cameras in hand, and broadcasts the encounter live on Facebook. During the broadcasts, they answer questions from those commenting online and encourage viewers to “like” and share the footage.
About half way through one of these videos, posted by Silent Justice on Sunday, the subject, a Co Louth man, claims he talked to the children online so he would be caught and sent to prison where he could “get” another paedophile.
The woman with the camera responds with derisive laughter. “Are you f**king right in the head?” she asks. They then tell him he is under “citizen’s arrest”, a legally dubious concept in this country.
The man’s panicked expression makes it clear he knows his life is ruined. The group claims he has since been arrested. Gardaí say he has not. But even if he isn’t prosecuted, nearly 200,000 people have now seen the footage of him on Facebook.
Gardaí are aware of the allegations against two men in Drogheda. They have interviewed both and say investigations are continuing.
Silent Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
The incidents, along with the charging of an RTÉ producer with grooming offences in the UK after a similar operation, have ignited a debate about the actions of such vigilante groups.
During the summer, Silent Justice confronted a man in Naas, claiming he intended to meet a 13-year-old he had groomed online.
The encounter followed the same pattern as other videos. He denied he intended to engage in sexual activity, only for the group to read out explicit messages he exchanged with their decoy. Gardaí then arrived to take him away.
To date, Silent Justice’s actions have led to no convictions in this country.
The actions of vigilante groups have been condemned by many, including those who work with victims of sex abuse. Even the police have spoken out.
But legal sources say there is nothing inherently unlawful about what they are doing.
“Video evidence and online evidence from witnesses is used all the time in prosecutions, so this wouldn’t really be any different,” one barrister said.
The fact the “child” in question doesn’t exist could be circumvented by prosecutors charging the suspect with an attempted grooming offence rather than grooming itself. And entrapment probably wouldn’t arise if it was the suspect who initiated explicit communication and suggested meeting up.
Nonetheless, all of these points and more would likely be raised at trial by defence lawyers. “It would be a very, very interesting case,” another barrister said.
This year, PSNI Det Chief Supt George Clarke said groups such as Silent Witness are undermining the work of the police. He also questioned the motivation behind the livestreaming of the confrontations.
“What are they trying to achieve?” he asked after a Co Antrim man took his life after being confronted by a vigilante group in August.
A Garda spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter, but three senior members expressed grave concerns about such groups on Tuesday.
Maeve Lewis of One in Four, which offers support to both victims and abusers, said she would never support vigilante behaviour but she can see why people get involved.
“I think people are very frightened really with the apparent rise of online grooming,” she said. “Gardaí are under-resourced in this area. They need to be funded so they can undertake the work these vigilante groups are doing.”
Many of those working with victims of sexual abuse believe the best way for the Government to protect people is to take a proactive approach – that is, stop offenders before they start by noticing the early signs, such as the viewing of child pornography, and offering help.
Ms Lewis said everyone on her organisation’s specialist programme for young abusers started by looking at child abuse material online. “They were spending hours and hours online in their bedroom as children, not being supervised.”
The internet has made child grooming much easier for offenders. But it could also be used to stop them before they harm anyone.
Committing a crime
The Irish branch of the National Organisation for Treatment of Sexual Abusers (NOTA) wants to see the introduction of an online system which would remind potential abusers they are committing a crime when trying to find child pornography, and that the images they are viewing are of real children who are being abused.
It would also offer access to a helpline number or referral to a local service.
Targeting people who have just started engaging in deviant sexual behaviour in this way, “including children, adolescents or young adults”, is vital, said a NOTA Ireland spokeswoman.
A similar programme in the UK called Stop It Now has seen significant success in recent years, the group says. Some 45,000 offenders or potential offenders have engaged with its anonymous self-help service in the last two years.
Figures from the group show a clear demand for an Irish version. Over 300 Irish people have contacted Stop It Now during the same period looking for help in ceasing or preventing offending, despite the service not being advertised here.