No stopping online child sex offender, says judge
There are no words strong enough to describe the horror captured in the images collected by child abuser Stephen John Laing.
There is also no way to prevent the 28-year-old, upon his release from jail, soliciting more material to trade in the murky online world he's created from inside his West Auckland home.
"He's had all the help in the world that's available to him and this is still happening," Judge Claire Ryan said at a court hearing a few days ago.
She sent the IT graduate to jail for a further five years. It was his fourth conviction.
Laing belongs to a small, but extremely harmful group of recidivist sex offenders who view, trade or create images of child abuse. Caught in September and charged with supplying objectionable material while on parole, Laing is considered the "worst" of his kind in New Zealand, not only for his continued, unrepentant offending but because of the type of material he favours.
In Laing's case, "objectionable" means pictures of adults raping babies, and toddlers being forced to perform sexual acts on grown men. His latest bout of offending was picked up by a United States sheriff posing as a paedophile online, who managed to download 24 images from Laing and who then alerted New Zealand authorities.
Although prevented by parole conditions from owning a computer or accessing the internet, authorities found Laing used a laptop from his home to tap into a neighbour's wireless connection, trading on a file-sharing website under the name "baby rape".
He shared files, including a video folder with 271 video clips and image folders labelled "baby and toddler" and "5 to 10".
The image folders contained 6000 image files depicting sexual abuse.
While he might be the worst, Laing is by no means alone in his obsession.
Figures from the Internal Affairs Department, which works with Customs and Police to prosecute these offenders, show that 14 men were prosecuted under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act this year. Another 30 cases are pending.
It is unknown how many of those men were repeat offenders, but recent court records show there is a core group for whom prosecution has not yet been a deterrent. Aaron Potter, for example, was sentenced in the North Shore District Court earlier this year to 25 years' jail after pleading guilty to 40 charges of possessing objectionable material. Potter continued to distribute images even though he knew he was being investigated.
Bryce William Butler, 44, was given nine months' home detention in Hamilton District Court in February after previously pleading guilty to 16 charges of possessing objectionable material. The former Te Kuiti counsellor was jailed previously, in 2002, for twice indecently assaulting a 9-year-old girl and months earlier was also in trouble for possessing objectionable material.
Auckland University's expert in clinical and forensic psychology, Ian Lambie, who recently studied a group of offenders like Laing, Potter and Butler, said viewing the abuse images was highly addictive and highly compulsive, making it extremely difficult for the perpetrators to stop.
"Also, what some internet offenders believe is that because there's no hands-on offending they rationalise there's no victim," Lambie said. "They live in a fantasy world."
To stop reoffending, any treatment had to deal with the addiction but also the underlying issues – like loneliness, anxiety and depression, Lambie said. There are treatment programmes in New Zealand for online offenders – some will be admitted into sex offender programmes run at prisons, while others can complete community-based treatment such as that offered by Safe, in Auckland.
Safe Network head Jacqui Dillon said it had a specific programme for online deviants, based on cognitive behaviour therapy. A four-year follow-up study showed that 5 per cent of those in the programme reoffended, which Dillon says is good evidence to support community-based programmes, and the importance of rehabilitation as a tool.
"There is no evidence to support that keeping someone incarcerated changes their behaviour," Dillon said.
In Laing's case, however, the treatment failed. Laing attended the Safe programme, on direction from the courts, but was kicked out for continuing to view porn.
The national director of child protection agency ECPAT, Alan Bell, believes Laing's refusal to change is enough to justify an indefinite sentence.
Bell believes the civil detention centre proposed to hold the country's worst violent offenders should also be available for online offenders.
"If a person is determined not to rehabilitate it's not going to succeed. Provision needs to be made for these people to be isolated from society, indefinitely," he said.
Justice Minister Judith Collins said indefinite punishment for online offenders was not an option.
While she planned to double sentences for possessing objectionable material from five years to 10, civil detention centres were only for the very worst sexual and violent offenders, Collins said.
Stephen John Laing will be eligible for parole in 2015.
The investigators who trawl through thousands of disturbing images depicting child abuse have to complete counselling sessions every three months to help deal with what they've seen. Customs has also appointed only two designated staff to complete the task after it found some workers were too badly affected by the pictures. Investigating officers Tim Houston and Dave Southwell both worked on the Laing case, and analysed the images found in his possession. What they look at is disturbing, disgusting and horrifying. A book of sanitised images used to demonstrate what they see every day shows acts perpetrated on children that would make most people feel physically sick. However, the investigators say it's important to find the children in the photos and prevent further abuse. If they can find the victims, it also helps in creating victim impact statements that are placed before a judge. "Our priority is to save real victims. Whether they're here or overseas, that's why we do it," Houston said.Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael, the head of the police online child protection team OCEANZ, said there were some significant trends the agencies were watching in New Zealand, such as an increase in sadistic abuse and a growing number of pictures of babies. Public awareness of the practice was growing, although there was still an issue with the use of the word "pornography", he said. The taskforce said the term "porn" indicated legitimacy and compliance on behalf of the victim, therefore legality on the part of the offender. Michael said in reality, each photo was an image of a crime scene and should be treated as such. Customs manager of investigations Shane Panettiere said they hoped to stamp out the term and replace it with phrases like "images of child sexual abuse". "If New Zealand knew what we were talking about I think they would be absolutely horrified. There is no way they would call it pornography," he said
Sunday Star Times