The Net: home to paedophile rings - Stewardson

The Internet is not only encouraging child abuse but is providing a home to paedophile rings that would otherwise not exist. This is the startling conclusion of Detective Superintendent John Stewardson of the National Crime Squad.
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Stewardson should know better than anyone. He headed up the UK arm of Operation Cathedral -- the international investigation into the largest ever Internet paedophile ring. Dubbed the Wonderland Club, the ring is believed to have had 180 members worldwide. Over one million images of children being abused were exchanged between members over the Net.

The World Wide Web of paedophilia has grown with the Internet and there are now "loads and loads" of paedophile rings operating on the Net, according to Stewardson. He claims the demand for child pornography is huge and Internet paedophiles are constantly seeking new pictures of abuse. "These people crave new images. Once they have seen one, it loses the buzz," Stewardson says.

The Net has provided the vehicle for the quick exchange of illegal images across international boundaries. "These rings would not be possible without the instantaneous and relative anonymity of the Internet," says Stewardson who is well aware of how easy it is to remain hidden on the Net.

In simultaneous raids in twelve countries 100 members of the Wonderland Club were arrested last autumn. Described by Stewardson as the crème de la crème of the paedophiles operating on the Internet, with several members from the UK. Seven alleged members are due to stand trial at Lewes Crown Court later this year.

Stewardson is determined the victims should not be forgotten. The investigation has left him with pictures of over a thousand children across the globe being abused and he intends to publicise them in the national media. "We will make a collage of the children's heads and shoulders and show them to the social services first but what is left I fully intend to go public with," says Stewardson, a position not welcomed by John Carr, Internet consultant for the NCH Action for Children charity: "It' a bad policy in principle because you never know where the pictures will end up. It could turn up in a kid's school or neighbourhood and reveal they are victims of abuse and make their recovery process even harder. It is better not to risk further damage that may be caused. There must be other ways of finding the victims without letting the whole world know they have been abused."

Stewardson is not optimistic many of the children will be identified but is motivated by what he has seen during the course of the investigation. "There is some horrific stuff going on. The worst you can imagine," he says, "you never see any of these children laughing." And while Stewardson is prepared to publish the images in the newspapers, he will not put them on the Net. "If we did that paedophiles could graft bodies back and have their collection back," he says in a chilling reminder of the power of technology to corrupt.

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