Sunday 16 December 2018

Top garda: State fails our children

'We must police web as we do the streets'

Internet danger: Assistant commissioner Pat Leahy has issues a stark warning about the risks children face online. Photo: Damien Eagers
Internet danger: Assistant commissioner Pat Leahy has issues a stark warning about the risks children face online. Photo: Damien Eagers

Philip Ryan, Mark O'Regan and Maeve Sheehan

One the country's most senior gardai has said the State has not "served our children well" by allowing unregulated access to social media websites where they can be targeted by sex predators.

In a rare interview for an officer of his seniority, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy also insisted "self-regulation won't work" when it comes to safety for children online.

The Assistant Commissioner's stark warning follows the sentencing of paedophile Matthew Horan, whom he described as a "relentless" sex abuser who "showed no mercy" to children he coerced and blackmailed into sending him sexually explicit photographs.

Mr Leahy told the Sunday Independent the case showed "the need to police the internet the same way we police the streets".

Mr Leahy's comments will put him at odds with the Government which has been slow to address growing public concern over the dangers of the internet and unregulated social media companies.

Yesterday, the two leading academic experts on cybercrime that targets children told the Sunday Independent that the Government's public consultation process on the digital age of consent, which is due to be set at 13 years in May, has been wholly inadequate - and called for a national debate.

Meanwhile, An Garda Siochana revealed it is currently monitoring 1,610 registered sex offenders - an increase of 200 since figures were last released three years ago.

Mr Leahy said the rise of social media websites has given paedophiles access to children "like they've never had before" and also allows sex offenders to stalk victims "below the radar".

"In policing, in parenting and in general social society, I don't think we have served our children well by allowing them to have such uncontrolled access so young," Mr Leahy said.

UCD professor and adviser to Europol's cybercrime centre Dr Mary Aiken said she believes there is now a real prospect of parents taking legal action against social media companies on whose platforms their children suffered abuse.

"I wonder what the legal actions will look like - general negligence and personal injury? And are the social media giants making [financial] provisions," she told the Sunday Independent.

Yesterday, the Ombudsman for Children's Office (OCO) said while digital technologies present opportunities for education and learning, they expose children to online fraud, cyber bullying and grooming for sexual exploitation.

It said increased education is a "vitally important protective measure" to protect children online.

"Children and adolescents need suitable education, support and investment in measures to strengthen their capacities and equip them to deal with a challenging digital environment.

"Parents also need accessible information to assist them with supporting their children to navigate the online environment safely."

Matthew Horan (26) was jailed last Friday for child exploitation and other offences relating to producing and distributing child porn. The court heard that he preyed on 15 young girls. Gardai identified six of the girls as Irish and nine have not been identified.

Horan, described in court as an "inadequate individual", groomed the children online by pretending to be their friend and then forced them to send him explicit photographs.

The court heard how one child resisted, and told Horan that she would kill herself, but Horan threatened to share other images of her with her friends if she didn't obey.

He contacted children through smartphone apps, including Kik, Snapchat and Instagram. Gardai are now following several lines of inquiry as a result of their investigation into Matthew Horan.

One father who shared fantasies with Horan about abusing his own daughter is under active investigation by gardai.

It is expected that gardai will also try to establish whether Horan was part of a network of Irish paedophiles who stalk children online.

Interpol has reported a "huge rise" in crimes against children that are facilitated by the internet.

"Not only can offenders distribute and access child abuse material more easily, but they can also come into direct contact with children - via chatrooms and social networking sites," the agency says.

Children's charities said the Horan case should become a watershed in society's response to the scourge of online child sexual abuse.

Detective Supt Declan Daly of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau warned parents of the dangers lurking online, and urged children to never agree to meet any person they met on the internet.

Matthew Horan, of St John's Crescent, Clondalkin, was described in court as a "perpetual loner" who never appears to have ever had a job and lived a "dingy" life.

The court heard Horan was on the autism spectrum and that child pornography may have been an "obsessive fixation". But Judge Martin Nolan said that Horan knew what he was doing was wrong but he continued to sexually exploit and coerce young children.

Local residents were said to be shocked to learn of the paedophile predator in their midst.

Trevor Gilligan, a Fianna Fail councillor, called on the Taoiseach to create a minister for technology to oversee cybercrime and ensure children were better protected: "I have a lot of friends in St John's estate," he said. "The community is tight knit, the neighbours are nice and no one ever suspected such a horrendous act could happen on their doorsteps, near a local school, and that a neighbour would be committing such horrifying crimes."

Independent councillor Francis Timmons said local people were "really angry that such awful and vile behaviour has happened in our community".

Dr Mary Aiken and UCC's Professor Barry O'Sullivan issued a joint statement calling for a new public debate and national poll on the issue before the new age of consent becomes law. "The evidence shows that the consultation process has clearly been inadequate. We don't have input from individual parents or young people, there were only five individual submissions, only two were submitted before the deadline, and only one of those took a position stating that 13 was too young - so what does that mean? There are 2.4m males and 2.4m females in Ireland, so only one of each took a position, and they did it together," the two academics say in their statement.

"We don't believe that those directly affected by this, the parents and children of Ireland, have been adequately consulted. Before a final Irish position on the digital age of consent is enacted we believe that there should be an in-depth public debate, and a more comprehensive measure such as a nationwide poll should take place so that the voices of the parents and children of Ireland can be heard," they added.

Sunday Independent

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