THE arrest of a man in West Cork in connection with the production of pornographic images of children is the realisation of every parent's fears.
While no one has ever been convicted here of that crime, child protection experts are convinced there are people scattered across the country who are taking abusive images of children and distributing them on the internet.
"Ireland is no different to any other country in the world. If it is happening elsewhere, it is happening here," Professor Max Taylor, who heads up the COPINE Project in UCC's Department of Applied Psychology, has consistently said.
His view is supported by ISPCC director of services Grace Kelly who said there is no reason to suspect that pornographic images of children are not being produced in Ireland.
"It is only a matter of time before it is discovered that these types of images are being produced here. And it is unlikely that it will be just one person. There could be many people operating around the country," she warned.
Ms Kelly said that paedophiles on the internet operate on a 'club' basis and in order to be in the club, you need to have your own images to trade or supply. She said it is this need to constantly create new images of abuse that makes people convicted of viewing or possessing child pornography a potential threat to children.
"We would always urge the gardaí and the health boards to fully investigate anyone with a conviction for accessing child pornography to ensure they do not pose a risk to children.
"Worldwide evidence suggests that one-third of people who access child pornography on the internet will either have previously abused children or will go on to.
"When you have that kind of information backed up by international data, it is very important to carry out a risk assessment on everyone who is found to have accessed child pornography to ensure that children are protected," Ms Kelly said.
The COPINE Project, founded in 1997, applies both forensic and clinical psychology to the analysis of sexual exploitation of children on the internet. It is a world leader in identifying the victims in these abusive images, which range from pornographic poses to molestation, rape and violence. The majority of images are of white children under the age of 12.
COPINE works with Interpol, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, the FBI, the Greater Manchester Police, the gardaí, the PSNI and the NSPCC, to name but a few, and helps with the identification of child victims and the apprehension of offenders who have produced the images in Europe and the USA.
MORE THAN 50 children were identified last year with the help of COPINE. However, with between 10,000 and 50,000 children in abusive images on the internet, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
When identifying children from a photograph or video clip on the internet, particularly photographs taken in a bedroom or a living room, even the smallest details can provide a vital clue.
Logos on T-shirts, ornaments in the room, the design on the curtains, even the shape of the electrical socket, can help pinpoint a location.
Detective Inspector Terry Jones of the Greater Manchester Police Abusive Images Unit once identified a five-year-girl who had images of her rapes posted on the internet based on the information he and his team gleaned from the photographs the dimensions of the house, a detail of a school uniform, an Epson printer and a Fuji camera.
"I don't mind people knowing the details of how we identify offenders from these images. Everyone knows that if you leave your DNA or fingerprints at a crime scene you will be caught, but criminals still do. It's the same with these images," Det Insp Jones said.
Ms Kelly believes that while awareness of this issue is increasing, particularly with the Marc Dutroux case in Belgium, child protection is still not being adequately addressed in this country. She pointed out that the only people who receive full garda clearance to work with children are either full-time health board workers or people who work for State-funded creches.
This means most teachers, volunteer workers, childcare workers in the private sector and those working with sporting organisations are without adequate vetting.
"The gardaí tell us that it is a resource issue; that they just don't have the resources to respond to all the requests for background checks for everyone who wants to work with children. This is just not acceptable and is plainly putting children at risk. Other countries are laughing at us. This kind of vetting is a basic requirement to protect children," she said.