Special investigation: In the week when Justice Minister John O'Donoghue launched a major report detailing the dissemination of child pornography on the Internet, The Irish Independent has uncovered disturbing new evidence of organised paedophilia in this country. A special investigation by Gemma O'Doherty and Jerome Reilly finds the stereotype of the `dirty old man' has been replaced by wealthy businessmen prepared to take major risks in satisfying their perversionSpecial investigation: In the week when Justice Minister John O'Donoghue launched a major report detailing the dissemination of child pornography on the Internet, The Irish Independent has uncovered disturbing new evidence of organised paedophilia in this country. A special investigation by Gemma O'Doherty and Jerome Reilly finds the stereotype of the `dirty old man' has been replaced by wealthy businessmen prepared to take major risks in satisfying their perversion
Shocking new evidence of highly-organised paedophile networks operating along the east coast and preying on children as young as 11 years old has been uncovered by an Irish Independent investigation.
As well as a number of loosely-structured paedophile rings centred on Dublin, there is compelling information from a number of childcare professionals that a sinister group of sexual predators are exploiting a number of children in the Louth region.
But it has emerged that the Louth connection is just one element of a coherent and systematic abuse of possibly hundreds of children, involving the distribution of child pornography and the exchange of information about potential targets. Strong evidence was contained in the recent Murphy Swimming Report indicating that a ring of contacts may have been operating in the sport which has seen two of its national coaches charged with sexual assaults and rapes and another leading figure convicted of double murder, his motive believed to have been his desperation to keep secret his sexual exploits with an underage swimmer.
In the west of Ireland, too, there is compelling evidence of a paedophile network in operation. As exclusively revealed by The Irish Independent, gardai in Galway are amassing an extensive dossier to go to the DPP on sinister activities in the Salthill suburb of the city.
The internet is just one of the tools used by members of the rings to keep in contact and satisfy their lust for ``new material.''
In Dublin senior officers from the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence unit based at Harcourt Square are still conducting a major investigation into an organised child sex ring involving girls as young as 12.
One alleged ringleader is presently before the courts, but gardai have now widened their investigations in their efforts to crack a significant paedophile network for the first time. Further arrests are expected. Some vulnerable children, many of them homeless or in care, have been drawn into `survival sex' selling their bodies for money.
Along the east coast a core group of about 30 serial paedophiles have been identified so far, many of them professional, middle-aged married men. Businessmen, managing directors and wealthy property-owners who are willing to travel long distances to indulge their sick perversion are major figures in the network.
Evidence began to emerge in Dundalk two years ago when suspicious activities at a phone box in the centre of the town came to the attention of youth workers. As darkness fell each evening the youngsters, of both sexes emerged from the side streets and outlying housing estates around Dundalk.
Drawn by the promise of money, gifts and alcohol, the children would wait for a phonecall to the coinbox. Arrangements would be made. Many of the paedophiles had their own favourites and would be checking on their availability.
Within moments a car, sometimes a top of the range executive saloon would pull up and the victim would step quickly into the front seat. From there they would be taken to secluded locations around the town, the racecourse, the industrial estates, and the coast, where they would be subjected to the vilest forms of sexual abuse.
Although many of the paedophiles operated independently, some of the youngsters say there was also collusion between groups of men. They told childcare workers they were video-taped during group sex sessions.
Brian Doyle, a youth project manager based in Dundalk, has been highlighting the sexual exploitation of children in the area for more than two years. He believes that Dundalk is the geographic centre of a major paedophile ring operating along the east coast.
``The dogs in the street know about it and who is involved. It is not confined to Dundalk but it would seem to one of the central locations.''
Doyle believes that since the problem was first highlighted, it has worsened but the perpetrators have gone further underground. The phone box is no longer the focal point and meeting places change frequently. ``The situation seems to have disimproved. What happens is that when these men feel they are at risk of being caught, they become cleverer and get more of a thrill out of it.
``They may even become more active. The higher the risk the greater the buzz for them but they also become more dangerous. These men are by no means on the dole. Many of them are professionals who arrive in Mercedes and BMWs.''
Brian Doyle is not a lone voice.
The Irish Independent has confirmation from three senior figures working in Co Louth of the existence of an organised network of child abusers. It has also emerged that the gardai, concerned with the persistent nature of the allegations have been conducting an investigation.
But Supt Michael Staunton says that evidence has been difficult to obtain. One case was processed through the courts and a conviction was obtained in the District Court. However, the conviction was overturned on appeal.
``I can say that surveillance has been on-going by the gardai. We have spoken to parents, community groups and the health board. Although we are aware that a number of youngsters are out of the control of their parents or those who have authority over them, it is extremely difficult to gather strong evidence about those alleged to have been exploiting them,'' he said.
Supt Staunton added: ``To be honest, there has been precious little evidence so far to support the view of a large-scale organised network.''
However, the North Eastern Health Board (NEHB) have expressed its grave concern. They say that at any one time as many as 12 children in the area are at serious risk of sexual exploitation by adults. Denis Cahalane, Child Care Manager with the NEHB,told the Irish Independent: ``We have been aware of this for three years but it is very difficult to get concrete evidence of those involved. We know of situations from time to time of children who have gone missing for up to 36 hours.''
Mr Cahalane stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the situation is any worse in Dundalk than it is in any place of similar size.
But Rosie Toner, a Project Manager with the Health Board-funded Youth Initiative Partnership Programme, is firmly convinced that a paedophile network is operating in Dundalk. ``That is most definitely the case. I have come into contact with children who are being manipulated and targeted by an organised group of sexual abusers.
``They are not operating from just one location and the way they target children varies. I am very disturbed by what young people have been telling me,'' she said.
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs Dermot Ahern told the Irish Independent he was aware that a number of vulnerable children have been drawn into exploitation by paedophiles in Dundalk. ``Very strong suggestions have been made to me by parents that an organised paedophile ring is operating in the town. I have no reason to disbelieve them,'' he said.
Calling for vigilance, he appealed for anyone with information to come forward to the gardai.
Youth Community leader Liam Adams says there is a strong local involvement in what he described as a ``very well-organised arrangement'' which may also have links in Donegal. ``We have names of well-known business people who we are 100pc sure are involved.''
But he says that the authorities should be doing more to investigate the situation based on the evidence which has emerged so far.
Registration numbers gathered by social workers who have conducted their own surveillence on activities based around Dundalk during the last two years have been handed over to the gardai for further investigation.
The allegations of an organised ring extending from Belfast to Wexford first came to light last week at a social study conference in Donegal.
The social worker who made the claims, Paul Flynn, team leader of the Crosscare Aftercare Support Unit in Dublin, described the ring as ``one of the most extensive in operation'' and that gardai were aware of its existence.
A number of young men who had abandoned prostitution had disclosed that they had been abused by a network of men who knew each other and were in regular contact with each other. These same men are still targeting children in Leinster.
Paul Flynn believes several hundred boys between the ages of 10 and 16 are being subjected to major sexual abuse by a group of approximately 50 highly-organised, highly professional individuals who were co-ordinated from Dublin.
The registration numbers of cars observed in suspicious circumstances originate from border counties, including Louth, Monaghan and Down, as well as Dublin and Meath.
Several national figures involved in the area of child protection have expressed their concerns about the existence of loosely-organised paedophile rings operating in Dublin.
Owen Keenan, Chief Executive of Barnardos, believes that paedophiles may have infiltrated local authorities and care agencies involved in the protection of children. He said he was not surprised by claims of organised child sex abuse. ``There are a lot of sinister things happening and there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence to be very suspicious.
`We know that there is a market for sex with children. We know there is a degree of organisation and a sharing of information.''
``I cannot believe there is no infiltration of services for children. Any manager of a childcare project who believes that it is not possible for paedophiles to infiltrate childcare services is negligent, to say the least.''
``We've seen so much abuse of children in recent years,'' says the director of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Olive Braiden. ``We've seen it in swimming, in the number of clerics who've been found guilty and there is no reason not to believe that there are other organised groups in which it is going on. There is a culture of secrecy in Ireland,'' he added.
According to Fr Peter McVerry, who has been working with some of the most vulnerable children in Dublin for years, it is obvious that a significant number of Dublin paedophiles know each other and are in regular contact. He speaks of loosely-organised groups. ``There is no question that there is collusion.
Many of them are self-made wealthy men. There is a perception that these people are dirty old men dressed in raincoats. That is not the case. Very often they may be pillars of the community, with wives and children.''
Childcare agencies have found that such is the demand for children, there is evidence that younger women involved in prostitution have been dressing down in an effort to make themselves look younger. Some of them dress in ankle socks and wear pony-tails in their hair to give the impression that they are younger than they actually are.
In some cases, it has been established that parents have been offering their children to men in exchange for money. There is also evidence that brothels in Dublin have arrangements whereby children can be ordered from them.
Demands were recently made by local residents to have the public toilets in a housing estate in Dundalk demolished after children were being approached by men in cars. Brian Doyle first became concerned that children in Dundalk were being abused when he observed the explicit nature of some of the language they were using.
Along with other child care workers in the Dundalk area, he has carried out surveillance. Doyle believes that a special unit is now needed to deal specifically with the situation in Dundalk needs to be established.
``We have reached a crisis point now. These are the Celtic Tiger Cubs, the most socially excluded children in our society. I've seen so many kids sucked into this and watched their lives being destroyed.
``So little has been done to try to stop it. Where are the care units for these children? Where are the resources? Where is the zero tolerance this Government spoke about before it was elected? We have to stop denying that it's going on. If you deny it, it festers and grows. We all need to work together.''
* Much work has been done to try and improve services for the children and families affected by sexual abuse. Among the services available are those run by the CARI Foundation, who have a numnber of therapists trained to deal with the terrible consequences of child sexual abuse. They can be contacted in confidence on a special hotline at 01-8308529, Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5.30pm.