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Child porn viewers "unlikely to abuse"

Experts assume consuming child pornography per se is not necessarily a risk factor Keystone

Men who access images of child pornography and are caught are very unlikely to progress to acts of child sexual abuse, a Zurich study has found.

This content was published on July 15, 2009 - 21:32

The study by the psychiatric-psychological service of the canton of Zurich indicates that being apprehended for this crime and having to face justice has a strong deterrent effect.

Researchers evaluated the cases of 231 men in canton Zurich who were prosecuted for possessing or downloading paedophile material from the internet. The study was published in the journal BMC Psychiatry.

The men were identified as part of sting operation "Genesis" in 2002. Half were convicted of possessing child pornography, while the other half were acquitted with costs awarded against them. The latter group were lighter consumers of the illegal material.

The scientists tried to establish whether these consumers of child pornography were likely to commit sexual offences involving bodily contact.

Frank Urbaniok, Jérôme Endrass and Astrid Rossegger examined the criminal records of child pornography users before 2002 and checked how their files had evolved in the six years since criminal investigations were begun.

Risk factor

Only one per cent of the group had a previous conviction for a sexual offence with bodily contact and none of them was subsequently convicted of such an offense.

The results showed that for men with no prior conviction, viewing child pornography was not a risk factor in perpetrating acts of sexual violence against children, Endrass told swissinfo.ch.

"Since very few of them had a criminal history of child abuse and none of them reoffended, we assume that consuming child pornography per se is not a risk factor for people who have not committed "hands on" offences, in other words not molested children before."

However, Endrass emphasised that this did not make child pornography a victimless crime.

"Of course there are victims. It is not just a misdemeanour to consume child pornography, there was a very serious offence behind the production of the material," he said.

"Not paedophiles"

The researchers were surprised that most of the "Genesis" men, who registered with an online distributor of child pornography and paid for images by credit card, were not active paedophiles.

"We know that for child molesters, consuming child pornography is a very important risk factor for reoffending but this group is different," Endrass explained.

But what of the cases that have never come to light? The "dark figure" referred to by criminologists and sociologists to describe the amount of unreported or undiscovered crime, which calls into question the reliability of crime statistics.

"The 'dark figure' is a big issue when it comes to sex offenders. The official rate of recidivism for sex offenders is very low and many people assume this is because of the dark figure but we just don't know," Endrass said.

Deterrent

As for the profile of the men caught in the sting operation, most appear to have been "socially very well integrated". A third of the offenders were married and one in four had children.

"They were better educated than average, more likely to be Swiss nationals, 45 per cent were university graduates. These men held good jobs and a significant proportion of them had a professional IT background, " Endrass revealed.

The researchers believe the shock of the police action and subsequent legal proceedings played an important role in preventing future reoffending.
 

Operation "Genesis" 2002

Swiss police questioned 822 suspects, who were identified as part of a massive police anti-child pornography operation in late September 2002.

Police were given a list of suspects by the United States authorities. The individuals were traced because they allegedly used their credit cards to subscribe to US-based child pornography web sites.

Their names appeared on the client list of a US-based internet company called Landslide Productions, which provided users with access to sites such as "Cyber Lolita" and "Child Rape".

In more than half of the 822 cases investigated by the Swiss authorities, illegal pornographic material was seized.

Under Swiss law, the possession or downloading of hardcore pornography – involving children, animals or violence – from the internet carries heavy fines or a maximum sentence of one year in prison.

However, viewing child pornography on the internet is not in itself a criminal offence.

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