Policing the worst of the online world
INTERPOL INVESTIGATOR Mick Moran is the man at the frontline of the international fight against internet paedophiles. His job is to “police the gap” between the online and offline worlds. The Garda Det Sgt, on secondment to the international police organisation, describes the disturbing images of child exploitation he and his staff study as “crime scenes”. Children who are vulnerable offline are just as vulnerable online, he says.
“Children don’t differentiate between an online and an offline world. Unfortunately adults do. As soon as you mention ‘internet’ to people it’s like it doesn’t exist. It’s like, if it’s happening on the internet it’s not in the real world, which is so far from the truth that it’s actually incredible that people would believe it. There exists this gap between the online and offline world that we try to police.”
The problem of the online grooming of children was this week highlighted by MEP Eoin Ryan who called for it to be made a specific criminal offence. In the USA social networking site MySpace.com deleted the accounts of 90,000 users it has identified as sex offenders.
Originally from Ashbourne in Co Meath, 40-year-old Moran is currently based in Lyon in France, where Interpol has its headquarters. He is married to a Frenchwoman and they have four children.
Back in Ireland to deliver lectures at UCD’s Centre for Cybercrime Investigation, he revealed some surprising facts about the people he investigates and their victims.
“Our profile is thirtysomethings, 30-plus, often married, always professional people. They’re successful in their worlds. We’re not dealing with ‘criminals’ here,” he says. “These are people who have never so much as had a parking ticket before, and here they are being aroused to the point of masturbation by images of children involved in sex acts.”
Moran also contradicts the widespread view that most of the victims are south-east Asian children. “The vast majority of images in our database are Caucasian, reflect the exact same ethnicity, the exact same racial profile as the offenders and the people that we’re turning up under every rock. That’s the reality of it,” he says.
The easiest place for the abusers to get unfettered access to a child is in their own homes, Moran says. “Just as 85 per cent of child sexual abuse takes place in the family home or in the family circle, where do you think 85 per cent of our images are coming from? They’re coming from the family home.”
Moran modestly describes his complex investigations as “basic police work”. A worldwide network of offices feeds images into a database in Lyon. The material is then analysed with a view to discovering its country of origin before passing it on to national police forces. Clothing and products in the background of the photographs or videotape can sometimes provide vital clues.
“If the person is leaving their face in there, obviously chances are they’re going to leave other stuff in,” Moran says.
Of course, the case becomes more difficult when the abuser has attempted to disguise his identity, as happened in the infamous case of “Mr Swirl”. He was a Canadian, Christopher Paul Neil, who taught children in South Korea. Neil posted images of himself abusing young boys on the web, but used a graphic effect to distort his face.
Interpol’s publication of the “unswirled” photograph of the serial paedophile in October 2007 brought in tips from five sources on three different continents. He was subsequently arrested in Thailand, with Moran in attendance.
Says Moran: “Christopher Paul Neil gave up his Canadian life and moved to south-east Asia so he could have sex with children. The defining purpose of his life was to have sex with little boys and that’s terrible, but that’s reality. Christopher Paul Neil was an active, aggressive child sex abuser, and he didn’t just abuse those kids five years ago and then leave it, give it up.”
Neil made it his life’s work to work as a teacher in south-east Asia and have sex with children, addes Moran. “So we stopped him. He’s in prison now. He’s not having sex with children any more. That one guy is not ruining lives the way he did. Now the problem is that for that brief period we have the cameras of the world on us out there in south-east Asia. We got our message across that this can’t be tolerated – but it still is.”
Moran says he doesnt get emotive about his work. “However, the way we in the West exploit children in south-east Asia is modern slavery, it’s disgusting. You can go online now and you can pick your child and give instructions as to what sex you wanted carried out on the child on camera for you.”
WHEN MORAN JOINED the Garda in 1990, he was first stationed at Ballymun in north Dublin. He moved to the local drug unit in Santry for a couple of years before working on the Veronica Guerin murder investigation team.
In 1997, he was transferred to the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, based in Harcourt Square, where he was assigned to the domestic-violence and sexual-assault unit.
“The internet was kind of just hitting then, and I was using it in my private life at the time. I’ve always been a bit of a gadget man. It just fell into my lap that somebody had to do this sort of work on the internet, so I started doing it and it got very big, very quickly.”
Moran says the abhorrent and emotive nature of the subject stifles debate and also, unfortunately, research on the issue. He argues that the language used to discuss the problem is important. The international policing community does not approve of the term “child pornography” but insists on “child-abuse material” or “child-exploitation material”.
“We say it’s important that you brand this as what it is: abuse material, exploitation of children,” he says. Another phrase Moran will not tolerate is the term “sex tourism”. “When a football team goes to Spain, that’s sex tourism. Travelling sex offenders go to have sex with children in south-east Asia,” he says.
Moran is enthusiastic about his work, but surely the volume of disturbing material he must view in the course of his investigations takes its toll? “Yes and no. The depressing aspect of it is that the biggest folder in our place is the unidentified folder,” he says. “Children naturally do not disclose that they’ve been abused. Why? Because they’ve been groomed, they’ve been threatened, they’ve been blackmailed, they’re afraid, they naturally don’t want to talk about it because they feel guilty about it, they’re disgusted with themselves . . . They don’t disclose. Child-abuse material on the internet is an opportunity for us to disclose on their behalf.”
Moran points out that while a teacher, doctor or social worker might have suspicions that a child is being abused, “when you have a picture of this abuse, it’s a crime scene”.
However, he says the swiftly growing scale of the problem coinciding with the surge in internet use has “caught society on the hop”.