Concern about adults using online forums to meet children and teens and try to get them involved in sex and relationships as online relationships have become more common in recent years, and is rising. Sexual contact between children and adults has long been criminalized, but new categories of exploitative behavior are emerging online, and lawmakers are struggling to keep up with changing patterns of “online grooming” behavior.
Federal Penal Code now provides for a number of offenses involving the use of the Internet to initiate sexual contact with a child under the age of 16. State and territory laws have also been amended to reflect the need to prosecute criminals for online looting. However, some of the new laws proposed to address online grooming have been criticized for being too broad and covering behavior that consists solely of communication between adults and children.
What is online grooming?
Online grooming is a phenomenon aimed at adults coming into contact with young people online and initiating sexual contact in real life. In some cases, adults were convicted of these crimes under circumstances in which they told children honestly about their true age and identity.
In 2007, 15-year-old Carly Ryan was murdered by a 50-year-old man in South Australia. A 50-year-old man posed as her 18-year-old musician online and had a relationship with her. In response to Carly’s death and her mother’s subsequent campaign for legislative reform, federal criminal law was amended to allow adults to be prosecuted for engaging in her grooming online of a child under the age of 16. The new crime became known as “Curley’s Law”. They aim to catch predators preparing for sexual contact with children online before any actual harm is done to the child.
Offences under the Commonwealth Criminal Code
It is now a crime under the Federal Penal Code for an adult to use a car service to engage in sexual activity with someone believed to be under the age of 16 (Section 464.26). Importantly, the crime is based on the fact that the sexual act actually takes place, or that the correspondent is actually under the age of 16, and that the transport service for delivering obscene communications to anyone under the age of 16. Other related offenses include using a car service in a threatening, harassing, or abusive manner (Section 474.17) or using a car service to send obscene communications to a person under the age of 16 ( Section 474.27A).
There is also the specific offense of “raising” a child under the age of 16 online, carrying a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison (Section 474.27). Under this clause, if you can demonstrate intent to prepare the child for future sexual encounters, you may be prosecuted even if you do not attempt to arrange visitation with the child.
Many criminals have been charged with crimes under federal criminal law after interacting online with police officers posing as minors. These police “controlled operations” have been validated by courts as legitimate means of gathering evidence against potential sex offenders. A suspect cannot be convicted of a criminal offense if it is shown that the suspect believed he or she was a child under the age of 16.
Further proposed changes
In 2015, the Children’s Online Safety Improvement Act was passed, establishing a Child Safety Commission to promote online safety education for adolescents and to receive complaints from children experiencing cyberbullying.
Various other amendments to the Criminal Code regarding online contact with children have been attempted but failed to pass Congress due to concerns about how they would work in practice. In 2016, a bill was introduced making it a crime to misrepresent your age to a minor online. The bill has been reviewed many times, but has not yet passed due to fear of unintended consequences. Opponents of the bill argue that there are many situations in which an elderly person misrepresents their age, which should not lead to criminal penalties, such as sending humorous birthday invitations claiming they are turning 21.
Another proposed change would criminalize engaging in sexual communication with children under the age of 16, and has been criticized for potentially interfering with necessary adult-child sexual communication, such as Sex education.
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