The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has uncovered a large-scale network of offenders sharing creating and distributing child sexual abuse material online, and have so far arrested 14 men, including an IT worker from Sydney.
Police arrested 14 men in NSW, Queensland, and WA on 828 charges related to child abuse and bestiality with the age of child victims ranging from 16 months to 15 years.
One of the alleged offenders was a former childcare worker who had access to 30 children and is facing 303 charges including many for sexual assault.
Other offenders included a volunteer soccer coach, disability support worker, electrician, supermarket employee and chef.
Police have so far identified 46 Australian child victims through its investigation.
Assistant Commissioner of the AFP, Justine Gough, said it was an “unprecedented” network of criminal behaviour.
“There is obviously a web of people involved in this operation and throughout the course of the investigation, each and every warrant activity resulted to the unraveling and identification of further victims and further offenders both here in Australia and across the world,” Gough told a press conference on Wednesday.
The investigation began in February when the AFP’s Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCE) was briefed by its US counterpart about someone uploading child abuse material to the internet.
That led to the arrest of a 30-year-old Sydney man for child abuse and subsequent investigation of his electronic devices led police to discover “social media forums” where users were allegedly producing, accessing, and sharing the child abuse material.
When asked how these perpetrators were accessing the material, Gough said she was not willing to make comment about the specific online platforms involved.
“Probably the best way to describe that is that there is access on the regular internet and there’s also access on dark web platforms as well,” she said.
Adam Parks from the US Department of Homeland Security confirmed that “several” US social media platforms “proactively reported this material on their platforms”.
“When we receive this information, oftentimes from US social media companies or US electronic service providers, the uptake here in Australia is very quick,” he said.
“The child protection teams and the individuals at the ACCE are quick to basically go and knock on doors and uncover the offenders in this horrible crime type.”
As the online child abuse unraveled, network Investigators found further links to offenders living in Europe, Asia, the US, Canada, and New Zealand and made subsequent international referrals that has resulted in at least three arrests so far.
"No child should be subjected to abuse and violence from people who hold high positions of trust in their lives, whether it be a family member, child care worker or soccer coach,” said the AFP’s Acting Commander of Child Protection Operations, Christopher Woods.
"These men allegedly produced child abuse material for the depraved pleasure of their peers with absolutely no thought to the lasting effects their actions would have on these children.”
Child exploitation has proliferated online at an alarming rate with the New York Times finding that tech companies reported 45 million instances of child exploitation material in 2018 alone – a figure that was double the previous year.
It’s a problem that has led Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, to vocally oppose Facebook’s plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across its messaging services last year.
“We believe the fundamental right of a child to be safeguarded from sexual harms trumps a paedophile’s ‘right to privacy’,” Dutton said in a speech last December.