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Calls for new child grooming law to ban online vigilante 'paedophile hunters'

A TD and child protection expert are calling for the legislation to ban vigilante ‘paedophile hunters’.

JUSTICE MINISTER Frances Fitzgerald has faced calls for new legislation against online child grooming to ban vigilante groups from engaging in “sting” operations against paedophiles.

The heads of the Sexual Offences Bill, published last month, would make it an offence to travel to a place with the intention of meeting a child and sexually abusing them, after contacting them online or by phone.

While noting that the bill hadn’t yet been finalised, a Department of Justice spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that:

It is enough that a person intended to meet a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation, regardless of whether they actually meet a child or otherwise.

Although this detail may end up being interpreted by the courts, it would appear to allow for An Garda Síochána and international law enforcement agencies to engage in sting operations – posing as children in order to clamp down on paedophiles.

However, it also seems to open the door for ‘paedophile hunting’ vigilante groups, such as those which have emerged in the UK in recent years.

stinson A man being pursued by vigilante Stinson Hunter

Groups and individuals such as Letzgo Hunting, Daemon Hunter, and Stinson Hunter pose as children – normally girls under the age of 15 – on chat sites, social media and instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

Jim Gamble, a renowned child protection expert, and former chief executive of the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), told TheJournal.ie how the vigilante groups usually operate.

They don’t even have to pose as a child who is “looking for sex.”
It can start, for example, with a post on a modelling website, where someone appearing to be a young girl says “I’m 12 years old, and I’d like to get involved in modelling.”
  • Gamble says it only takes a matter of minutes for that “girl” to be inundated with responses from adult men, simply because of the age mentioned.
  • The next stage is “relationship building”, he says, where the men might exchange phone numbers with what they think is a 12-year-old girl, and try to bring the conversation into a more private sphere, where it’s harder to detect.
  • Offenders will then test the waters by sending sexually explicit messages or images of themselves, in order to gauge the response of the child.
  • The contact escalates, and a meeting is arranged, says Gamble, where vigilante groups challenge the offender in a public place, before posting their name, personal details, and a video of the confrontation online.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in the UK, however, has pleaded with vigilante groups to leave child protection to trained law enforcement.

“While these groups may often operate with the best of intentions, we do not encourage action of this kind, which can compromise ongoing investigations into paedophile networks, and could spark an abuser to further harm a child if they feel threatened,” Channel 4 News quotes an ACPO spokesperson as saying.

Police in the UK have also expressed a fear that vigilante groups could actually be infiltrated by by would-be child abusers.

stinson2 A man who arranged to meet a teenage girl for sex is confronted on camera by vigilante Stinson Hunter

For Jim Gamble, one major difficulty with vigilantism is the lack of “a suicide strategy.”

At least two men have taken their own lives after being exposed by a group calling itself Letzgo Hunting and Stinson Hunter – an English vigilante who leads an operation which was the subject of a controversial Channel 4 documentary in October.

People may say, ‘Who cares if they kill themselves?’ Well, their families care, and they haven’t done anything wrong.

Gamble also points out that the consequences of a vigilante sting operation which goes awry can be disastrous.

These groups don’t have the ability to track the offender’s movements, they don’t always know where he lives, or if he works in a place where he has access to children.
So if a motivated paedophile travels to a public park, let’s say, to meet a child, they may see a young girl sitting on a swing, and assume that it’s the girl they’ve arranged to meet.
He could then grab that child, and you, as the vigilante, have lured him there in the first place.

Gamble says he sympathises with the frustration that gives rise to vigilante groups, but that it is “fundamentally wrong.”

I understand why some people become involved in vigilante behaviour when it comes to protecting children.
Every day they read headlines about predators targeting and engaging with children, and it can be very frustrating.

CRIME Internet Jim Gamble in 2005, as PSNI Superintendent and deputy director of the UK Nation Crime Squad Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Actors such as Stinson Hunter have enormous popular support in the UK, and while police have criticised their operations, some have also used the videos and chat logs they gather as evidence leading to successful convictions.

For his part, Gamble proposes the formation of a “Citizens’ Army” of volunteers, recruited, vetted, trained and supported by An Garda Síochána to help them tackle child grooming and abuse.

He says Minister Fitzgerald’s legislation “contains a lot of positives”, and should be widely welcomed.

However, he told TheJournal.ie the bill should include two offences which would “turn the tables on predators and create a real, active deterrent.”

First, it should be an offence for anyone aged over 18 to masquerade as a child online in order to talk to or meet children, even if there is no explicit language or imagery involved.
Unless – they can prove a lawful purpose, for example an academic study or a piece of journalism.
This shifts the burden of proof on to offenders, because proving sexual intent is often extremely difficult for law enforcement.
Second, it should be an offence for anyone aged over 18 to masquerade as a child online, even if their purpose is to catch adult predators.

This would ensure that only An Garda Síochána, agents of relevant state agencies, international law enforcement, or “duly authorised volunteers” would be able to engage in “sting” operations.

10403673_326487564189834_3192045113323598563_n Vigilante Stinson Hunter. Source: Stinson Hunter via Facebook

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Sinn Féin spokesperson on justice, is calling for the new legislation to explicitly state that only An Garda Síochána can take part in sting operations against paedophiles.

I’m very concerned that this would be done by people not trained, or delegated by society, to do it.
The focus for the Minister, though, must be to give An Garda Síochána the IT equipment, and human resources that they need.
We have to give the Gardaí every angle they need, and I hope we’ll be teasing through all this in the Justice Committee.

Scroll down to read the General Scheme of the 2014 Sexual Offences Bill or, if you’re viewing this on a mobile device, click here.

Read: Is your child safe online? New laws on the way to combat grooming>

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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