A 47-year-old man has been charged with committing 145 child sex offences on 28 children, including 8 counts of ‘grooming a child under 16 to procure engagement in sexual activity’ in what has been described as one of the most serious cases of child sexual abuse in recent years.
Police allege that on several occasions, the man offered the children money in exchange for sexual favours, while in other cases he resorted to extortion to solicit photos.
It is alleged that he used social media platforms to communicate with the children, with his advances sometimes leading to real-life meetings in hotel rooms, where he sexually assaulted them.
The man is a resident of Queensland, but the children were reportedly from around the country, with some being based as far away as Western Australia.
The case illustrates the ways in which changing technologies and communication platforms have exposed children to new dangers. And with social media growing in popularity, parents are growing increasingly concerned that their children will be targeted by sexual predators.
AFP Reports ‘Explosion’ in Online Child Sex Offences
The case comes in the wake of data released by the Australian Federal Police which indicates that online child exploitation has increased by 54% in the past 12 months.
The AFP facilitates a Child Protection Operations Team which is tasked with investigating allegations of online child exploitation in partnership with State and Territory Police Forces and international law enforcement agencies such as Interpol. Last year, they arrested 78 people in connection with child sex offences.
The AFP has reported that efforts to crack down on online child sex offending have been hampered by innovations in technology which enable sex offenders to escape detection when communicating with children and disseminating child abuse material online.
It has also reported that children are being groomed more quickly online and that ‘it could now be as little as two weeks between the first online contact and a physical meeting.’
What Does Australian Law Say About Online Grooming?
In Australia, those alleged to have procured or groomed children for sex online can be charged under Commonwealth law, as well as criminal legislation of each state.
In New South Wales, a person who is alleged to have committed child sex offences online may face charges under section 66EB of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which makes it an offence to procure, groom or meet a child under the age of 16 for unlawful sexual activity.
Under the Crimes Act, ‘procuring’ refers to an attempt to obtain a child for sexual activity, while ‘grooming’ refers to showing or exposing a child to indecent material or providing them with drugs or alcohol with the intention of making it easier to get the child to engage in sexual activity.
The maximum penalties for the offence range from 10 to 15 years imprisonment depending on the age of the child in question, as well as the nature of the conduct.
The Commonwealth Criminal Code also contains offences for grooming and procuring children online. Section 474.26 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code makes it an offence to use a ‘carriage service’ to send a communication to another person with the intention of procuring that person to engage in sexual activity with the sender.
A ‘carriage service’ refers to any technological means of carrying communications, including online gaming, chat rooms and social media. The maximum penalty is 15 years imprisonment.
Section 474.27 also contains the offence of ‘using a carriage service to ‘groom’ persons under 16 years of age. To be convicted of this offence, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the sender used a carriage service to transmit a communication to a person who they believed to be under the age of 16, with the intention of making it easier to procure the recipient to engage in sexual activity, either with the sender themselves or another person.
The maximum penalty is 12 years imprisonment. However, a higher maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment may apply where the prosecution establishes that the sender transmitted the communication with the intention of making it easier for the recipient to engage in sexual activity in the presence of the sender, or another person who is believed to be 18 years or older.
Police may decide to press charges under the Commonwealth Criminal Code where there is no specific provision or offence under State law, or where the child is located in another country.
For instance, section 66EB was only inserted into the NSW Crime Act in 2007 – prior to this, procuring and grooming charges were typically brought under the Commonwealth Criminal Code.
It is interesting to note that under NSW and Commonwealth law, the ‘child’ in question does not actually have to be under the age of 16 – it is enough that the sender of the communication believed that they were under 16. This means that police can effectively pose as children in an attempt to catch unsuspecting online predators.
Online Gaming Platforms Used to Target Kids
Earlier this year, UK teenager Lewis Daynes was sentenced to 25 years in prison after he used an online gaming platform to lure 14-year-old Breck Bednar to his Essex apartment, promising the young boy ‘great wealth’ and a job working in the computer industry.
The pair had reportedly been chatting online for months before they met in person, during which time they had played popular games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield together. Daynes had also reportedly boasted about donating money to terrorist groups, and had used his charismatic personality to distance Bednar from his family in the months leading up to their meeting.
The ill-fated meeting ended in tragedy when, on the 17th of February 2014, Surrey police received a phone call from Daynes admitting to cutting the young boy’s throat following an ‘altercation.’ An examination of the boy’s body revealed that he had been sexually assaulted prior to the attack.
From the outset, Breck Bednar’s parents were concerned about his online friendship and his increasing disengagement with the outside world. His mother, Lorin Bednar, reported Daynes to the police after she became worried about the level of control that he was exerting over her son and his purported links to terrorist organisations. However police did not take any action, despite Daynes’ details having being entered on the Police National Database for similar allegations of online grooming.
Bednar’s family was only informed about the allegations after their son’s death. Police later told the media that their failure to act was due to ‘major problems with staff retention and staff training as a result of cutbacks in expenditure.’
What Should be Done?
Despite tougher laws being introduced in recent years to deal with procuring and grooming of children online, the AFP data indicates that the conduct continues to be a growing problem. Deputy Commissioner of the AFP, Graham Ashton, has admitted that law and order mechanisms alone are not effective, stating that ‘societal appetite for this kind of material is on the rise and is beyond a purely policing response.’
So what more can be done?
In an attempt to combat the procuring and grooming of children in the United States, tech giants including Microsoft, Sony, Disney Interactive and EA Games agreed to shut down the accounts of 3,500 registered sex offenders in New York.
Child protection groups also encourage parents to warn children about online dangers and should take steps to educate themselves about the dangers of technology.
However, studies have shown that generally, parents are less technologically advanced than their children, and that this often poses a barrier in monitoring children’s online activities.
Accordingly, experts suggest that safety awareness campaigns are most effective when they are directed at children themselves.