There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children – Nelson Mandela.
As a detective Steve Fontana has done the hard yards and with 40 years at the sharp end felt there was little left that could leave him shocked.
He was wrong.
As Assistant Commissioner (Crime) he had assigned a group of his detectives to identify Internet child porn offenders. Years earlier he investigated sex offenders and wanted to see how computer networks had changed the landscape.
And so late last year he was shown an example of the type of material that is now produced for a growing and frightening international market.
First the office was cleared so no one else would accidentally be subjected to this horror that defies understanding.
The screen showed an infant tortured on an online site. And while the images were distressing it was the sound that still haunts the senior cop.
It was of that helpless toddler, just old enough to walk, screaming with pain and fear while being deliberately injured.
He thought the child, later found to have have been filmed in Asia, was doomed to die but eventually the girl was identified and rescued, although no one can possibly guess the long term psychological toll.
“It is pure evil,” says Fontana, still outraged by what he watched.
A joint Victoria/Australian Federal Police taskforce has been working to identity offenders, but more importantly victims, who need to be saved.
Fontana says police in just one case have so far rescued 14 children in Australia and overseas used as fodder by that one international syndicate. But there are more.
“We have rescued two in Victoria,” he says.
Police use high tech tricks to find offenders but sometimes it is old-fashioned policing that gets the results.
“In one case it was just a footslog getting out there and asking people if they recognised a particular child until we found the house.”
So how does it work? There are thousands of offenders in Australia who through Peer to Peer networks and the Dark Web source images of sexually exploited kids.
The offenders who download this material sometimes try to justify their actions by claiming to police the images already exist and they are just looking but Fontana says they are feeding a market of depravity. “You access this and you are exploiting kids.”
There are pay for view sites where the “consumer” can request their fantasies be acted out with children.
The offending is so vile that police assigned to investigate are offered counselling and rotated regularly so they don’t end up emotionally crippled. “We are seeing stuff that has gone to a whole new level of evil,” says Fontana.