Battling child abuse

Published : Apr 25, 2008 00:00 IST

An official of Floridas Child Predator CyberCrime Unit talks with people on instant messenger during the unveiling of a new CyberCrimes office on March 7 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.-JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES/AFP

An official of Floridas Child Predator CyberCrime Unit talks with people on instant messenger during the unveiling of a new CyberCrimes office on March 7 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.-JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES/AFP

The scourge of child pornography has not been readily understood by the officialdom in India, and few opinion-makers understand the problem fully.

A RECENT report from Kerala says that a Belgian football coach, Jozef Achtergael, 57, who had been jailed for five years in his home country for paedophilia, has been training young boys at a private academy in the State for several years. More amusing is the fact that he has been doing this without any compensation whatsoever. Officials of the academy are shocked by the revelation that their coach is a convicted child offender. The extenuating fact, however, is that the B elgian has not come to any adverse notice so far in Kerala.

Nevertheless, the episode indicates how easy it is for a foreign national with a criminal record to enter India and mingle with children, the very age group from which he had drawn his victims in his native land. It is anybodys guess how he got a passport issued by his government and how the Indian Embassy in Brussels gave him the visa. There is possibly scope here for an inquiry that could lead on to a scandal.

Again, this is not the first time that a foreigner with a known appetite for children has managed to enter India. If you ask Vidya Reddy of TULIR, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Chennai dedicated to the cause of protecting children from sexual exploitation, she will rattle off names. Naturally, she is incensed over what has been reported from Kerala.

The football academy is reported to have decided to terminate Achtergaels services. According to one news report, when confronted with proof (received by Indian contacts from one of Achtergaels alleged victims in Belgium) Achtergael confessed to his shady past. While I wait for further developments on the subject, I thought I should tell readers how serious some countries are about neutralising those who abuse children and those who either intentionally or inadvertently help them.

A case reported in the United States in 2006, which attracted national attention and has just concluded in court, comes readily to my mind. This was in Connecticut, and the man who had a brush with the law was Philip Russell, a 48-year-old lawyer, who had been a federal attorney. He and his family were regular worshippers at the Christ Church in Greenwich. His wife was particularly close to the church. It was possibly this strong bond that persuaded the church to seek her husbands advice on how to tackle a peculiar problem.

In October 2006, a church official stumbled on objectionable child images in the laptop computer of the churchs long-time choir director, 65-year-old Robert F. Tate. Confounded by this strange discovery, the church approached Russell for advice and hired him as its counsel. Russell had his own cut-and-dried approach to the problem. After forcing Tate to put in his papers and leave the apartment he had been given in the church compound, Russell took charge of the laptop and had the hard-disk pulverised beyond recovery. He advised the church not to report the matter to law enforcement.

A day after this crude operation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) got scent of the episode and swung into action. In no time it unravelled the happenings and brought to book both Tate (for possession of child pornography) and Russell (for destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice).

On February 22, 2008, Tate was convicted to a term of five years and six months in jail and a fine of $50,000 was slapped on him. He also made a poignant statement before the court that ran like this:

There are many people who, all my life, thought I was a good choir master and a good person and a good example for their kids. I want those people to know today that I was a terrible choir master, a terrible person and I harmed those kids. Ive struggled all my life with a sexual attraction to young boys. I dont know why this happened to me.

Apart from continuing the treatment for sexual deviance that he had begun after he was found out, he would be registered as a sex offender, his Internet usage would be monitored, and he would be prohibited from meeting children under 18 unless they were accompanied by an adult who was aware of his conviction. Can any sentence be more meaningful and effective? As for Russell, since he confessed to his misconduct, he was let off on probation and with home confinement for six months. If he had contested the charge of obstruction of justice, he would have been jailed for nearly three years.

The Russell-Tate case has stirred the legal community in the U.S. Here was a lawyer who took the law into his hands although, personally, he had no axe to grind. He was possibly too close to the Episcopal Church, where he and his family worshipped, for objective advice.

A brilliant and erudite article by Daniel M. Gitner and Gabrielle S. Friedman in the New York Law Journal (November 15, 2007) raises several interesting issues and questions. First, would the FBI indictment of Russell mean that even if a person accidentally comes across child pornographic images not just any pornography does that person have an obligation to report the matter to law enforcement? Is it right to believe that he cannot ignore them, however distant the source of such images from where he is normally positioned? The same principle applies to organisations as well.

Secondly, when an individual or organisation discovers such images, they must presume that an investigation by law enforcement is either already in progress or is round the corner. They cannot claim ignorance of such a process. It is equally incumbent on them to hand over all the evidence intact to law enforcement, without destroying or altering it in any way.

Finally, Gitner and Friedman ask the question whether an organisation that finds one of its members in possession of child pornography should conduct an internal investigation before going to the police. They respond to this by saying that all depends on whether such an inquiry would alert the offender and make him destroy the evidence and also flee. If there is no such danger, a domestic inquiry is well warranted. There is also the distinction between home-made and Internet-downloaded images. In the former case, immediate intervention through a report to law enforcement can in all probability reduce the adverse impact on others in the organisation.

These are all conjectures on which there could be differences in perception. Suffice it to say that child pornography is a serious matter and needs expert and objective handling.

Another recent case again in the U.S. relates to a top official from an internationally reputed pharmaceutical company. Alan Hesketh, 61, has been charged with trading in hundreds of images of children engaging in sexual activity. He is a British citizen permanently settled in the U.S. and was arrested at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Funnily, he committed the offence of profiting from child pornography by posing as a 28-year-old woman. Can there be anything more obnoxious? Hesketh is likely to receive a mandatory sentence of five years, as also 20 years for trading in objectionable child images.

The gravity with which the evil of child pornography is viewed in the West should be striking to an Indian mind used to callousness on the subject. That this scourge spawns many others has not been readily understood by the officialdom, and few opinion-makers understand this. This is evident from the debate on the proposed amendments to the Information Technology Act, 2000. Even if these amendments are painfully slow in coming like flyovers in many cities the different perceptions of the players involved are significant. For instance, while the experts committee appointed to look into the issues recommended a special provision in respect of child pornography, the Information Technology Ministry felt that there was no need for a separate mention of child pornography.

Interestingly, the Standing Committee of Parliament for the Ministry supported the experts committees recommendations by pleading for a specific mention of child pornography.

It said: [T]he Committee are concerned to find that the term child pornography has nowhere been mentioned in the proposed Section. The Departments argument that the Section while covering pornography will automatically cover child pornography does not convince the Committee as there should be no scope for assumption or presumption when fresh amendments are being proposed. The Committee, therefore, impress upon the Department to include the term child pornography in the proposed Section 67 A in view of its growing menace. They also desire that specific provisions should be incorporated in this Section to criminalise child pornography in tune with the laws prevailing in the advanced countries and Article 9 of the Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crimes. In view of the several manifestations of sexual abuse of children and its loathsome ramifications, the Committee desire that the act of grooming the child for sexual relationship through online enticement or distributing/showing pornography or through any online means should also be made a criminal offence and a suitable provision be made in this regard in the proposed Section 67 A.

This unequivocal stand of the Parliamentary Committee is commendable. Let us wait for its endorsement or rejection by Parliament when it debates the issue. Either way, as long as that debate keeps in mind the focus, namely, the health and welfare of our children, half the battle against child pornography will have been won and a strong message sent across the board. It would also help to educate the common people on a matter of high social importance.

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