Plans to tighten up laws on child grooming

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is to clamp down on loopholes in laws in relation to child grooming.

It follows the findings of an online child abuse watchdog, which recorded an “unprecedented” number of child grooming reports from members of the public, with almost 900 cases last year.

However, the 2014 annual report of Hotline.ie said analysts determined that just one of the cases actually met the definition of grooming.

The manager of Hotline.ie, Paul Durrant, said this was due to a combination of reasons, one of which were “legal issues”.

Ms Fitzgerald told the Irish Examiner that forthcoming legislation would tighten up this issue.

“In the new Sexual Offences Bill, which I will bring to the Dáil in the course of this year we will be giving further definitions to child grooming and child sexual exploitation online and will be dealing with those offences in detail,” she said.

The Hotline.ie report recorded an “unprecedented number” of complaints from the public of suspected child grooming.

The watchdog, run by Irish-based internet service providers, logged 857 such reports — a massive 310% rise on 2013. However, it said that only one case was deemed by analysts as actually meeting the definition of child grooming.

The report said: “This should not be a surprise as this type of crime is quite difficult to assess. In order to undoubtedly assess a case as child grooming the analyst has to see clear proof of intent.

“The grooming process takes time and has several stages: Targeting the victim, gaining the victim’s trust, filling a need, isolating the victim, sexualising the relationship and maintaining control.”

The report said the one confirmed case was a “very well-known video streaming resource”. It said that 60% of content reported for child grooming was pointing to this video site.

Mr Durrant said the fact only one case was assessed as child grooming was due to both “legal issues and misunderstanding”.

He said most reports of grooming were single instances of name-calling — “a defamatory statement about someone which might have been of a sexual nature and people are interpreting it as grooming”.

He said: “It’s a whole process. It’s very hard to determine. So having a snapshot of the internet, particularly on social networks, where somebody makes a sexual comment about somebody who appears to be underage, it’s very hard to determine.”

Ms Fitzgerald said the Sexual Offences Bill would have an emphasis on “protecting children from unwarranted and unwanted advances” and will update the law to specifically include online grooming.

“There will be, for the first time, provision specifically targeting the use of modern communication technologies as a tool in the sexual exploitation of children.”

Ms Fitzgerald said it would include the first steps of predators in their targeting of children, “The new legislation recognises that seemingly innocent contact through social media or messaging apps can be initial steps in the sexual grooming of a child,” she said.

She said there would also be an offence of using technology to send sexually explicit material to children.

“These offences recognise and target the threats which modern communication technologies can pose to children,” she said.

Hotline.ie; internetsafety.ie; spunout.ie/onlinesafety

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