Casting a net over online paedophiles

The analysis of why and how and what happened to Holly Wells and
Jessica Chapman, whose bodies were discovered last week, could take
many weeks to unravel. The suffering of the girls’ families is
almost too painful to contemplate.

Whenever a child has been hurt or killed, one of the most pressing
questions is how such a tragedy may be prevented from happening
again. Sometimes, the answer is that the marriage of fate and
circumstance is so random, so rare, that prevention is almost

One of the issues highlighted early in the search for Holly and
Jessica, does, however, demand action: what should society do about
paedophiles who use the internet to lure their victims?

According to John Carr, internet adviser with the children’s
charity NCH, there have been 10 cases recently in which
paedophiles, pretending to be another child on the net, won trust
and went on to assault.

Ministers are considering making internet grooming a criminal
offence. This proposal gives the illusion of strong action but, in
practice, only reveals the inherent weakness in liberal thinking
when it comes to dealing with paedophilia.

Internet grooming requires a jury to convict someone simply for
what is in their mind – before an assault has taken place. How will
such a charge be made to stand up in court? A convicted offender
could claim that he had honourable intentions but he disguised his
identity because he knew he would not otherwise be given the
benefit of the doubt by the authorities. Even if found guilty, how
tough should the punishment be?

If a conviction for grooming carries a penalty of, say, probation
and supervision, is that any guarantee of children’s safety? In
this country we demonstrate a strange ambivalence on the issue of
paedophilia: the offender is frequently shown far more grace than
he or she ever exercised with a child.

In some states in the USA, for instance, a single conviction for
possessing child pornography from the internet, carries a life
sentence. The reasoning is that the user may not have personally
corrupted but as a customer, he has contributed to the terrible
price exacted from the victims of this perverse industry.

Prison for a mind crime like grooming sounds like an Orwellian
nightmare – but it is infinitely less frightening than the reality
of the lives of many thousands who have their childhoods cruelly
plundered by rapacious adults.

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