Adults who seek to groom children online face 14-year term

Proposed new criminal offence aims to stop grooming before it gets to physical contact

Amy MacMahon - a computer generated image  made by RTÉ’s graphics design department. Image: RTÉ

Amy MacMahon - a computer generated image made by RTÉ’s graphics design department. Image: RTÉ

 

Adults who attempt to groom young people online for the purpose of sexual exploitation could face up to 14 years in jail under proposed new legislation.

The Sexual Offences Bill will criminalise adults who contact children either online or through mobile phones even if the initial contact is not explicitly sexual.

It will be an offence even if there was no physical contact or meeting between the adult and child in question.

It will also be an offence to send sexually explicit material to a child.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said RTÉ Prime Time investigation to be broadcast tonight on the use of social media to target young people for sexual exploitation demonstrated the risks involved.

In a statement she said the legislation is meant at the earliest stage to target those intent on grooming children.

“I believe these provisions are the necessary steps to ensure that children are protected from inappropriate contact and do so by recognising that today such contact is through modern communication technologies.”

She stated the new offences “also reflect the reality that predatory sexual activity to target children now takes place online, for example, via social media.”

Prime Time created a profile of a fictitious 14-year-old called Amy. She joined a social media account at the beginning of October.

Within a month she had accumulated more than 1,000 friends. Some were teenage boys but others were adults who attempted to groom her for sexual purposes.

Cyber psychologist Mary Aiken told the programme social media can be a perfect hunting ground for paedophiles.

“You can have children, or young adolescents, expressing vulnerability online: ‘I hate my family, I hate my friends, I want to runaway, my life is miserable,” she said.

“The sort of things most teenagers at some stage think or articulate, but those sentiments are readily available online, and the point is that there are people who are predatory, for whatever motive, who will focus and hone in on that vulnerability and that effectively is the risk.”

The State rapporteur on child protection Dr Geoffrey Shannon described RTÉ’s findings as “deeply disturbing” and called on the Minister for Justice to immediately enact laws to outlaw online grooming.

“I have been calling for the offence of grooming to be dealt with in a comprehensive fashion since appointed to the role in 2007,” he told the programme.

“I would hope that the Minister, given her track record in this area, will fast track this legislation. After all, our houses of parliament met in emergency session to give bankers a bailout - surely we should ensure our children are safeguarded by treating this bill in a similar manner to the bailout bill.”

Fianna Fáil’s spokesman on children Robert Troy called on the Minister for Children James Reilly to engage with the Office for Internet Safety.

Mr Troy said it was time to devise an education and information programme for parents and children to advise them on privacy issues and advise them on how best to stay safe online.