Children’s charities have urged the jailing of paedophile Matthew Horan to become a watershed in society’s response to the scourge of online child sexual abuse.
As the 26-year-old Dubliner began a nine-and-a-half year sentence for preying on children as young as nine, campaigners said politicians, parents and educators needed to use the momentum to make real changes towards child protection.
The focus is also turning on tech companies behind the social media apps used to target the victims with calls for them to face enforceable obligations to restrict and monitor their usage.
In the meantime, gardaí at the frontline of the battle against online predators have appealed to parents and children to act fast and decisively on any suspicious approach or encounter.
Detective Supt Declan Daly of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau said all communication should stop immediately, all records of conversations and images should be preserved, and the matter reported to gardaí without delay: “Today serves as a timely reminder of the potential dangers that can occur on the internet. Families can go through significant hurt and pain when images are shared online and we’d like to prevent that happening to any further families.”
Evidence from Horan’s court hearing caused outrage as details emerged of how he contacted children through smartphone apps and pressured them into sending him sexually explicit photos of themselves.
He then threatened to show the pictures to family and friends if they did not send him ever more graphic images. He continued threatening one 11-year-old girl even when she sent him increasingly distressed pleas, telling him she wanted to kill herself.
The ease with which he unleashed his terror on children through popular sharing apps has caused alarm and anger. The court heard yesterday that his family home had been attacked and windows broken since details of the abuses came to light.
Mary Flaherty, chief executive of Children at Risk in Ireland, said parents should discuss the Horan case with their children: “This will have knocked out any complacency that people had. It’s a real call to action and it is multifaceted what we need to happen.”
“At a minimum, parents should be using the opportunity to ask their children, have you heard of anything like this, do you think this could happen to you, do you know what you would do if anything like this did happen, and to stress you can always come to the parent, that they’ll always be there to support you,” she said.
“In terms of what the State can do, we need urgency on the proposed new digital watchdog and to revisit the digital age of consent. As for the industry itself, it is a bit of a wild west out there and it’s about time they brought in the sheriff. They are making a fortune out of it and they need to have responsibility to make it as safe as possible.”
The Children’s Rights Alliance and the ISPCC also urged parents to learn lessons from what Matthew Horan was able to do.
“It’s a very distressing case,” said Alliance chief executive Tanya Ward. “It shows the need to educate children from a young age of the dangers of social media.”
Grainia Long, chief executive of the ISPCC, said a joint approach to the dangers was needed: “We need a national cyber-safety strategy. We need everybody around the table.”
She also appealed to parents to stop feeling powerless. “This weekend, if you haven’t done it already, figure out what devices your child is using and what controls you have in place, sit down with your child and have that conversation with them, and then set boundaries and controls,” she said.
Six children in Ireland were identified as victims of Horan along with nine as yet unidentified children overseas. The loner, who did not work and spent almost all his time indoors and online, also had thousands of child pornography images in his possession.
Campaigners broadly welcomed the sentence handed down to Horan but as it was backdated to last June, with the last two years suspended and a quarter of the term likely to be shaved off as standard remission, he is expected out of jail in just under five years.