Callum Lavery: vigilante groups are unjustifiable
Let’s get one thing straight first – I fully support the punishment of anyone who feels it is justifiable to corrupt the innocence of children. While I do understand the reasoning of many members of the public trying to intercept such criminality, I feel that the self-styled ‘paedophile hunters’ we see on social media today are at best detrimental to the conviction of predators and at worst a risk to themselves and others. Here’s why:
The biggest problem with these vigilante groups and how they gather evidence of paedophilia is that they do not lead to a conviction. To date, there have been 110 cases of ‘paedophile hunters’ handing over evidence to police in Northern Ireland, out of these, only three people have been charged. In fact, after reviewing 15 of the 110 cases of alleged paedophiles brought to the police by vigilante groups, prosecutors decided that there were insufficient grounds to charge any of those identified.
A clear example of this was in January this year when one group posed as young girls online to lure 49-year-old Mark Presley. Presley sent hundreds of gratuitous messages the underage decoy. But in court, when Presley admitted attempting to incite a girl aged 13 to 15 to engage in sexual activity, he was spared jail. Judge Andrew Woolman said there were ‘no real victims’ in the case and so Presley received a three-year community order, a non-custodial sentence.
The Gardaí have deemed their actions useless to law enforcement. A recent Garda statement said: “The activity engaged in and the manner of confrontation between such groups and their targets has the potential for violence and could result in harm to persons present.”
“The manner in which such groups operate and how they interact with their chosen targets prior to and during the arranged meeting has the potential to affect future criminal proceedings.” By getting involved, these groups can indirectly aid these criminals to escape justice.
There have been cases of vigilante group members facing the possibility of arrest. Last month, BBC reported that a member of a group in Northern Ireland was to be charged with assault, disorderly behaviour and false imprisonment after confronting an alleged sex offender. Similarly, in Belfast, three men accused of targeting suspected sex offenders have been banned from any further paedophile hunting activities.
People have been targeted mistakenly- a man from Armagh took his own life, the partner of another man they ‘stung’ had to quit his job for his own safety while two other men were beaten by a gang and had to flee their home.
Finally, I would argue that the culture surrounding ‘paedophile hunters’ has led groups to continue stings for the fame that it brings them on social media. Online views reach the tens of thousands and while they say the purpose of the videos is to shame the predators, it’s quite clear that the reputation and power that comes from being an online vigilante is welcomed.
And so, while I commend the groups for their attempts, low convictions, interference with law and risking their lives and others are the reason I find vigilantes such as these, unjustifiable.
Hugh Farrell: Vigilante groups are a fair solution
The idea that paedophile hunting groups are needed is definitely not ideal but unfortunately, they seem to be. What can be seen from To Catch from Predator N.I and other similar groups, is that they can take these criminals off the street by building a case against them.
The reason I’m referencing this Northern Irish group is that it’s where I saw this trend begin to grow. There was a case of a man based in the Midlands who moved up north and was caught by this group. He allegedly used to work in a shop and get drinks for teenagers and invite them over to play Fifa. The police knew nothing of this or if they did, they weren’t doing anything about it even with a wide array of cases where he attempted to groom the adolescents. He moved away and within a short period of time, was caught by this group.
These groups are dedicated to the idea of catching predators and it’s the only item on their agenda so they can aid the police if they follow the law and gather the appropriate evidence. In the case above, the Northern Irish branch explained the alleged paedophile “groomed and sent naked images of himself masturbating and having intercourse with another man to who he believed to be a 14-year-old boy.” In the attached video their style of confronting him was perfectly executed. They had gathered proof, organised a meeting, asked him what he was there to do and allowed him to explain himself before calling the police to take him into custody. All of it was on video for proof and no violence occurred.
While all of this may make it seem straightforward, there are reasons why there is a divide in support for them. The biggest of which, according to some news organisations, being that they could be jeopardising police work. There may be a worry that if the police are investigating a case and they tip off the criminal in advance, the suspect can know people are onto him and delete the evidence. The issue here is that social media is a double-ended medium – it has proof on both sides and social media databases have everything recorded.
Another complaint is that hunters fall too deep into a hunter mentality and end up turning the people they go after into victims. The burden of proof is on them and if they don’t build a strong enough case, they end up being the bad guys. They can be found guilty of assault, entrapment and libel if they let it get to that point. This is a genuine concern especially with the level of emotion involved.
A fair solution to both of the above issues could be an affiliation group. If the groups were to remain voluntary and worked in affiliation with a police branch they could still do what they do to help the police, not interfere with ongoing investigations, receive legal and procedural training and advice on individual cases and also help them in a quality assurance perspective to the public.
Image Credit: Data Space