Fine Gael has proposed changes to Irish legislation in order to tackle the ‘internet grooming’ of children, and to address what it considers to be loopholes in the current legislation.
The issue is in the news because of a high-profile sexual exploitation case in the UK where a former US marine arranged a meeting with a 12-year-old girl in Paris, having contacted her previously on the internet.
Fine Gael’s Justice spokesperson, John Deasy TD, said internet grooming was a “rapidly developing phenomenon” and that current Irish legislation does not adequately protect children from predatory internet users. He called on the Minister for Justice to support the Bill and help it pass swiftly through the Oireachtas.
Under Section 3 of the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, it is an offence for an adult to arrange for a child to travel for the purposes of sexual exploitation. According to Deasy, this act was specifically drafted to deal with child trafficking but as it was enacted before internet grooming became widespread, it does not cover a situation where a child is not coerced into meeting a predatory adult.
“In legal terms coercion of the child is a necessary element to make it an offence,” he said. “It is not acceptable for us as a society to be reliant on a child trafficking provision in legislation in order to secure prosecutions for an entirely different offence – internet grooming. There are inherent dangers in doing so. As we have seen from a recent high profile UK case of internet grooming, coercion can be absent and the child may agree to travel of his or her own free will. As such Section 3 of the 1998 Act is outdated, as it does not adequately cover the practice of internet grooming.”
Fine Gael’s proposed Bill has two main aims: it inserts a new section into the 1998 Act to specifically deal with the complexities of internet grooming. It also proposes a broadening of the definition of ‘sexual exploitation’, as defined in the 1998 Act, to ensure that children are afforded real protection.
However the Internet Advisory Board, a government watchdog group that monitors illegal and harmful use of the internet in Ireland, warned that the issue was a complex one. “As a board, we certainly support anything to help protect children when they’re online, that goes without saying, but it is difficult to make an assessment of what does and does not constitute grooming,” IAB chairwoman Audrey Conlon told siliconrepublic.com.
“It is a very complex area and a lot of these assessments are value judgements. They could require a lot of expertise,” she said. “The devil is in the detail, so I’d like to see what recommendations they’re making.” She added that the www.hotline.ie site for reporting instances of child pornography online had not received any suspected reports of internet grooming in Ireland.
By Gordon Smith