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Out of control

John Gibb reveals that Scotland Yard cannot cope with the burden of trying to police Internet paedophilia

19 April 2003

12:00 AM

19 April 2003

12:00 AM

In the late 1990s, the US Postal Service identified 75,000 members of a Texas-based paedophile website named ‘Landslide’. Credit-card references showed that 7,272 of the subscribers were British. In the naive belief that their personal details would be secure, they had paid £21 a month to download pictures of children being seriously abused. Once they had collected images on their hard drives, they began to trade them with like-minded people. Today, five years later, men from every sector of society and from all over the UK are either under arrest or shaking in their boots, waiting for the early-morning hammering on the door. They will mostly be respectable men – only about 5 per cent will have a criminal record – and they’ll be charged with what has come to be known as the nastiest crime in the book.

For the 21st-century paedophile, however, secrecy is not a problem. The software that you need to keep your secrets out of the reach of the Old Bill comes free on the Web. There are ways of setting up your own group, creating your own rules and making it impossible for anyone to invade your file space while, at the same time, protecting your identity. After a few weeks spent lurking in paedophile chat rooms, you will agree to admit others to your group, on condition they provide more images. Your power, as the owner of a paedophile ring, lies in the number of pictures you have and how new they are. You’ll soon learn how to groom your own teenage victims online, how to ‘sexualise’ them for the first time, meet them in the flesh, and, if you’re clever, abuse them.

Steve Hallwood is a detective sergeant who, with his team of five DCs, spends his working hours stalking the chat rooms and child-abuse websites. They search for predatory paedophiles and child-abuse sites, which he calls ‘crime scenes’. His unit, originally part of Clubs and Vice at Charing Cross police station, is about to become the Child Protection Hi-Tech Crime Unit based at Scotland Yard. In spite of the seriousness of the crime, they have been forced to use computers seized from convicted child abusers because there are no funds for up-to-date equipment. Most of the forensic examination of computers is farmed out to private companies because the police can’t deal with it. It is expensive and takes at least 15 hours to investigate a single disk. Even the images of child abuse that have to be looked at and analysed as evidence are now being checked by a team of civilians because the Home Office can’t cope with the work.

Examining images of children being abused is a traumatic business. When Jack Straw came for a visit and asked to see what the unit was dealing with, he had to retire after a few minutes to vomit. ‘You never get used to it,’ says Paul Holmes, an ex- operational head of the Clubs and Vice unit. ‘It’s the look on the faces of the children because they know what is happening is wrong.’ ‘It’s because they’re always told to smile at the camera,’ says Steve Hallwood. ‘That’s when they’re not screaming or they’re too young to be able to understand what “smile” means.’

Child abuse on the Internet is a massive problem. Hallwood talks about Operation Barcella, where they identified 109 groups dealing in child-abuse material. ‘Some groups had over 3,000 members. We only investigated when we knew we could get access to sites we knew were publishing indecent images of children. There are countless secure groups which we can’t investigate. Nobody knows how many child-abuse sites there are on the Internet. But I could go on to the Web now and give you a list of 5,000 names, all abusers, either because they’re dealing in images or they’re hands-on paedophiles.’ There is no official estimate of how many British men are viewing indecent images of children on the Web. One police source told me that they estimate a figure of 200,000. The percentage who go on to become hands-on abusers is unknown, but research in the USA suggests that 30 per cent of viewers of this type of material have turned out to be active child molesters.

The police say that as soon as you have a list you have a problem. Lists leak and, because the numbers are so huge, the criminal-justice system can’t deal with them. Rumours flourish; Express Newspapers have already been over to the United States trying to get hold of the names of subscribers to Landslide, and it’s unlikely that News International will have been idle. ‘As soon as you have a list,’ says Paul Holmes, ‘you lose your security. You can’t maintain secrecy, which means that you can’t investigate with a realistic chance of making an arrest. The tabloids love lists of child abusers because they cut across all sectors of society. Celebrities, headmasters, police [50 police were arrested for subscribing to Landslide] are meat and drink to the red-tops to whom all child abusers are “monsters” and deserve all the vicious opprobrium that can be hurled at them.’

A typical abuser starts young – at about 20. He will have discovered that he had a sexual leaning towards children when he was 15, but it might never have occurred to him to pursue this inclination if he hadn’t unearthed photographs on the Web. The urges would soon have spiralled out of control. He would have looked at the images and masturbated over them, but told himself that it was a way of releasing the tension and getting rid of the desire.

In truth, he was going through a psychological process that only served to reinforce his urges. He probably graduated from ordinary porn to hard core – the heavy S&M images from Russia, the bleeding Japanese schoolgirls, tortured ghetto kids from the Brazilian favelas – then stumbled across pictures of prepubescent American girls with braces on their teeth smiling at the camera while they were being buggered by old men. Five years later he is likely to be looking for pictures of new-born babies being raped, and the torture machines.

If he’s proficient, an Internet paedophile can avoid the police. ‘But if they track him down,’ says Hallwood, ‘he can be convicted of two serious crimes: possession and trading.’ While they begin to analyse his behaviour, the police will offer him ‘welfare’. Several of the thousand or so men arrested in the last two years for viewing images of children have committed suicide, and they want this one to get to court. They know that he’s probably going to plead guilty, because, if he doesn’t, the jury will be asked to look at the contents of his computer, and the judge won’t like that. He’ll most likely double the sentence.

The accessing of child-abuse images on the Web has become a plague. It can’t be tolerated because a large percentage of the men who view these images go on to become hands-on abusers. But the police can’t deal with the problem because they don’t have the resources they need. A psychiatrist who advises them told me that it’s not just that the law is unenforceable and the criminal-justice system can’t cope; it’s that they’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the problem. Public opinion is hopelessly divided between those who believe that child abusers are not monsters and should be treated and re-integrated into society, and a majority who believe that they should be castrated and strung up from the nearest lamp-post.

Government knows that it must regulate the spread of child pornography on the Internet. It has already become too big to prevent by legal means, and the danger is that, if it can’t stop it, the law will start to tolerate abusers.

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