‘Virtual’ child abuse imagery a headache for gardaí

Sophisticated tech used to simulate child sex and ‘age down’ adult pornography

Gardaí are seizing increasing amounts of virtual or simulated child pornography, in the form of cartoons, text and computer graphic images.

The material, which does not feature real child victims, is frequently seized alongside child abuse material by gardaí under the Operation Ketch initiative, an intelligence-led operation aimed at proactively targeting those who download and disseminate such material, according to Garda and legal sources.

Investigators have also started to uncover images of minors created using sophisticated computer graphics programmes as well as standard adult pornography which has been “aged down”, meaning it has been altered to make the participants appear to be underage.

According to data released to The Irish Times, in 2018 2 per cent of the complaints received by Hotline.ie, a tip-line for alerting the authorities to online child abuse imagery, concerned "virtual child sexual abuse imagery".


This includes “pseudo-photographs where the computer-generated image is almost indistinguishable from that of a real living child”, a spokeswoman said.

Ireland has strict laws in relation to child abuse material, even if it doesn't contain any real children.

For example, several years ago a senior garda was investigated and referred to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), accused of distributing child pornography while teaching an academic course on the subject.

Teaching documents

He had given out teaching documents discussing the legality of the area which contained an example of cartoon characters engaged in a sexual act. The DPP directed no prosecution.

Some cases involving illustrated or CGI material creates problems for the Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in determining whether the subjects are underage or not.

In 2017, the DPP also decided not to prosecute a 17-year-old who was caught with explicit images of child characters from The Simpsons on his phone. He was reported to the Garda after he lost his phone and it was found in a cafe. He told gardaí the images were sent to him as a joke by a friend.

“It essentially comes down to a judgment call, I think,” said one lawyer who has prosecuted similar cases.

“If there is doubt about the illegality of the material, it is left to one side. Most times people are caught with other more blatant child pornography, so there is more than enough to charge them with.”

Much of the simulated child abuse material appears to originate from Japan, with some depicting children being murdered and tortured as well as sexually abused, a garda with knowledge of several recent cases said. Realistic "child sex dolls" have also been seized from several premises.

Unlike several other western countries, including the US and Switzerland, Ireland categorises all types of child sex abuse material, simulated or real, as child pornography. Offenders face up to five years for possession and 14 years for producing or distributing such material.

Text conversations

This extends to text conversations depicting child abuse, as seen in the prosecution of Carl Byrne (28) of Glasnevin Downs, Dublin and Aidan Lawlor (36) of Woodbrook Glen, Bray, Co Wicklow, who both pleaded guilty to the possession, production and distribution of child pornography on 7 March 2013.

One of the men set up a fake profile posing as a teenage girl and exchanged “lurid and obscene” messages with the other man. The judge described as it as a “very unusual” case before giving them each a suspended sentence.

“There hasn’t been much case law in the area in the Court of Appeal, probably because the sentences for this kind of thing tend to be quite light and not worth appealing,” one barrister said.

The only time the higher courts have ruled on the topic is the 2016 case of Mark Mulligan of Station Way, Clongriffin, Dublin, who took part in explicit conversations with another man in which he discussed raping children as well as famous Irish personalities.

Mulligan claimed it was “a fantasy conversation” which wasn’t covered by child pornography legislation. The Court of Appeal unanimously disagreed, ruling that because the conversation was saved on his hard drive and could be printed off as a document, it counted as child pornography.

These representations can be very violent and commodify children as objects of sexual desire

There has been some international debate on whether material which doesn’t involve a real victim should be illegal. Some commentators have even suggested such material could prevent paedophiles from accessing real abuse material.

Strongly rejected

This argument is strongly rejected by Maeve Lewis, executive director of One in Four which treats child sex abusers and as well as their victims. She said her team has come across several recent instances recently of clients being caught with virtual material including "some particularly vicious Japanese material".

She said there is a “very real” connection between viewing images and then going on to abuse children, especially with younger offenders. “Regardless of whether the victims are real or cartoons, the sexualisation process is similar.”

Ana Niculescu of Hotline.ie said people might think viewing such material doesn’t hurt anyone, “but that’s wrong. These representations can be very violent and commodify children as objects of sexual desire.”

She added that while there is a lack of empirical evidence of a direct link between possessing virtual images and physical abuse, “there is always the risk that its availability and proliferation online might lead to the development of a sense of social acceptance towards child sexual abuse”.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times