The Sunday Mail (Queensland)
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
THE Wood Royal Commission in New South Wales in the late 1990s lifted a rock under which nests of putrid police and their criminal friends writhed in a mire of filth.
But one comforting finding was that, despite sensational allegations in the media and before a separate corruption commission, there was no high-level network of “individuals, comprising highly placed offenders, who communicate with each other in order to procure children for sexual purposes’’.
It was soothing, but over the years various pillars of that finding have been badly knocked around by revelations in successive royal commissions and a steady feed of appalling court cases around the world.
Federal and state inquiries have confirmed the existence of conspiratorial “networks’’ within once-respected institutions, often during the time frame examined by the commission.
These networks may have been small but judgment on the existence of “highly placed offenders” might now be a matter of definition.
But where Justice James Wood has been left behind in the dust of progress is in his observation that “it is important not to overreact to concerns about pedophiles invading the internet, or establishing worldwide links’’.
“Criminality of this kind has yet to emerge on any large scale or organised way, but the potential is there, and needs to be confronted,’’ he said.
Remember, at the time he wrote these words he was able to note that “there are approximately 1.5 million internet users in Australia’’.
By last December there were nearly 13 million internet subscribers, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Wood noted that a criminal intelligence assessment in 1992 concluded that “pedophiles come from all walks of life and all social and financial strata of society; and who have the capacity to use their office or influence to protect one another’’.
So who knows how many of these revolting people now prowl the web and how they try to protect one another? Or how they succeed?
Whatever number you come up with, you could be way off beam given the revelations in the recent “dark net” case in Adelaide where a creature called Shannon McCoole was jailed for 35 years for sexually abusing children as young as 18 months.
A court was told McCoole, a 33year-old former government carer, was administrator of a sophisticated 1000-member global child pornography website.
He hid behind a cloak of encryption software but it began to unravel last year when Danish police discovered images he had taken of young children being sexually abused. It gets worse. When McCoole was arrested, two officers from Queensland’s anti-pedophile taskforce Argos assumed his online identity, working around the clock to identify other pedophiles using the network.
During a 10-month sting they identified senior members of the global site and tic-tacked with overseas investigators to help rescue scores of children and to carry out raids on suspected child abusers.
Arrests were made in Australia and around the world.
It was a good result for the police and for all of us but now the office of the Commonwealth Director of Prosecutions says the ring that unravelled might be just the tip of the iceberg.
Last week people were talking of online networks with 45,000 members.
“The material here was shocking, and the scale of the organisation of it was shocking,” said DPP assistant director Megan Voller.
Just as shocking is that peddling this online filth is a growth industry, with membership trebling while McCoole was running his show.
Those numbers are terrifying and it is difficult to accept that such sites survive merely thanks to clever software or that they recruit members without a degree of involvement from high-level, or at least highly skilled, organisers.
The degree of sophistication involved can be judged by the fact that it needed the police forces of South Australia and Queensland, the Federal Police and various jurisdictions in Europe and the US to bust this ring.
Wood did a mighty job in exposing corruption in the NSW police force but it seems reasonable to accept that, through no fault of his, some of the findings on pedophilia have been invalidated by the passage of time and the amazing growth of the internet.
The unfolding evidence is that we face organised criminal networks every bit as sophisticated, every bit as ruthless and possibly every bit as profitable as the international drug trade.
There don’t appear to be too many whistleblowers or turncoats when it comes to this filth so our main defences are small groups of dedicated police beavering away to breach the electronic walls of criminal hide-outs.
You might wonder whether we devote sufficient resources to recruiting and retaining bright, dedicated and computer-smart men and women who could presumably make more comfortable livings in the shiny corporate world.
McCoole’s trial was told that 53,000 images of child pornography were found on his computer.
The AFP hi-tech crime unit reportedly viewed every one of those 53,000 hideous images, each one of which potentially represented a new victim.
We owe a huge debt to men and women who are prepared to wade through that sort of filth to protect our children.