'Hidden crime' | 

Gardaí warn children being sexually exploited online every day due to cyber-crime backlog

There has been a 6,000pc increase globally over the past 10 years in online child exploitation, and “Ireland is clearly not immune to this”

Stock Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Ali Bracken

Gardaí have warned that children in Ireland are being sexually exploited online every day because of a three-year backlog in cyber-crime investigations, and say a national public awareness campaign to tackle this “hidden crime” is urgently needed .

Damien McCarthy, an officer attached to Dublin’s South Central region, said the spiralling rate of children being sexually exploited online now warrants a State-wide response from the authorities, comparable to how government and other agencies reacted when the Covid crisis hit in 2020.

“This is a hidden crisis,” he said. “There are children being sexually exploited online who should be identified and helped much quicker. When gardaí raid a house and seize devices with child abuse images, there is a three-year backlog in getting these devices examined.

“These are child victims — many of them, we can only assume, are still being sexually abused during these three years. It is not acceptable. We need to react to this problem on a national level, immediately.

“We do not know how many children in Ireland right now are still being exploited because we do not have the resources to identify this abuse swiftly and intervene.”

Garda McCarthy put forward a motion at the Garda Representative Association (GRA) annual conference last week urging management to set up a child exploitation unit in each of the 31 garda divisions.

“Children have grown up in the digital age,” he said. “They are putting images of themselves online, and then being targeted by abusers, who groom them and catfish them.

“Parents are very conscious of protecting their children when they go to the playground, the supermarket, making sure they are safe. Then they come home and their parents have no idea what they are doing online, often through no fault on their own.”

There has been a 6,000pc increase globally over the past 10 years in online child exploitation, and “Ireland is clearly not immune to this”, the officer said. Annually, there are 10,000 referrals to hotline.ie, the state-run mechanism for people in Ireland to report online child abuse.

In addition, between 2019 and 2020 there were 13,000 referrals of online child abuse to the Irish authorities from the American National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

“We have national campaigns to target domestic abuse, and road traffic campaigns to reduce road deaths — and rightly so in both instances,” Garda McCarthy said. “What we really need in addition is a Government and Garda national and public campaign to address online child abuse.

“These are our children. These are the worst crimes. How many children are suffering in silence right now, under the control of adult abusers they met online? We just don’t know. We are beyond the point for urgent action. A public awareness campaign is immediately needed.”

The introduction of legislation to enable gardaí to use facial recognition technology in criminal investigations was discussed at the GRA conference last week. Garda McCarthy said this new technology would be “very useful for serious crime investigations, including online child exploitation”.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee said technology is involved in “a huge amount of criminal activity” and gardaí need the resources to deal with this effectively.

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