Gardaí trying to tackle the spread of child porn are hampered by internet speeds so slow it takes hours to access images and videos that should be available to them in minutes.
They are also understaffed, struggling with a backlog of cases, and facing rapid growth in new offences.
The problems were highlighted over a year ago by the Garda Inspectorate in a damning report on the poor resourcing of the Online Child Exploitation Unit.
That report revealed that “poor broadband speed impacts greatly on the work of the unit and the downloading of material that should take 30 minutes can take up to 12 hours”.
Fifteen months later, Garda headquarters has confirmed that this is still the case. In a statement, management said: “This is the current situation. However, approval has been given for an upgraded broadband line, and it is hoped this will be installed in the near future.”
The unit is also understaffed although it has received extra personnel over the past year. It currently has 12 gardaí assigned to it — double the number it had a year ago — but the plan at that time was to have 20 in place. Management said a business case had been made for a further increase in staff.
The need for more resources has been vividly illustrated in the courts with cases often taking six years or more to come to trial because of the backlog in having material and devices forensically examined.
While the unit remains under strain, the number of child pornography offences is increasing.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office show the number more than tripled in six years, from 116 in 2013 to 392 last year.
The CSO provided the figures ‘under reservation’ as they require further verification but the trend shows rapid growth over the past four years in particular.
The vast majority of the offences relate to the possession of child porn and victims’ advocates are concerned at how this crime is handled in the courts.
Suspended sentences are common and there are no examples in recent years of anyone receiving the maximum jail term of five years, despite cases where defendants have been caught with thousands of images, or those featuring extreme sexual violence inflicted on children as young as babies.
Waterford man Colin Power, who was abused by sports coach Bill Kenneally and suffered the additional anguish of having his assaults photographed, has called for judges to get tougher on child porn users.
“The sentences are pitiful a lot of the time,” he said.
If there are lenient sentences or if there are totally suspended sentences, that’s not proving a deterrent to somebody who’s sitting at home accessing these horrific images.
Maeve Lewis, director of One in Four, is urging a review of the penalties set out in the law which currently states that any period of post-release supervision for convicted offenders must take place within the maximum five-year sentence.
“I absolutely believe that the post-release supervision element should be independent of the custodial term.
“It should not be combined because that way, no-one ever gets the maximum sentence or if they do, they don’t have post-release supervision. It’s an area of law we really need to look at.”
All the advocates interviewed also said the term ‘child sex abuse material’ should replace ‘child pornography’ in the law because they say associating it with adult pornography diminishes the crime in the public mind.
“It almost legitimises it because it takes the emphasis off the sexual abuse which is what it is,” Ms Lewis said.
The Department of Justice said it understood the concerns.
“Consideration will be given to this matter in any future review of child pornography law,” the department said.