News

Eleven of 80 suspects charged in provincewide probe are from Southwestern Ontario

Dale Carruthers

By Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press

OPP press conference on massive investigation targeting online child exploitation on Thursday April 28, 2016. (Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

OPP press conference on massive investigation targeting online child exploitation on Thursday April 28, 2016. (Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

Eleven Southwestern Ontario men are among dozens of people facing hundreds of charges after a massive, provincewide investigation into child sexual abuse in Ontario.

Provincial police said the months-long investigation netted 80 alleged offenders who are now facing 274 charges, adding more arrests are expected.

Ontario Provincial Police announced the charges against 78 men and two women Thursday in Toronto.

The bulk of the charges against the suspects are related to sexual assault, child pornography and exploitation. Some drug and weapons-related charges were also laid.

With many of the investigations continuing, police say more arrests and charges are expected.

But OPP Chief Supt. Don Bell warned child sex abuse, fuelled by the Internet, requires more than a police solution.

“We cannot arrest ourselves out of this phenomenon,” he said. “Our educators are extremely important. We have to create an awareness. And, as parents, we have to take ownership of our children.”

The OPP-led probe involved 26 municipal police forces, the RCMP, Canada Border Services and U.S. Homeland Security. The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service was also involved because one man charged is a member of the Canadian Forces.

Suspects were arrested in every major city in the wider London region except Sarnia, with three men charged in both London and Chatham.

An OPP spokesperson called it one of the largest coordinated police investigations in recent memory.

Investigators were tight-lipped on details leading to this week’s mass arrests, but they showed a display Thursday mapping more than 2,000 unique Internet IP addresses across Ontario where users accessed or shared suspected child pornography over the past three months.

Police identified 20 alleged victims — nine of them minors, aged 14 to 16, forced into the sex trade — during the two-month probe, referring them to community support services.

University of Toronto psychologist James Cantor said policing is “just one piece in the much bigger puzzle” of tackling child sexual exploitation.

Charges for making or distributing child pornography rose by 900 per cent between 1998 and 2003, according to a 2009 report from the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.

“But the public hysteria has gotten in the way of the prevention of these kinds of crime,” said Cantor, a pedophilia expert who edits a scientific journal researching treatments for sex abuse.

“The scientists and the researchers also need support in order to figure out ways to track these things electronically, figure out what puts a person at risk of being likely to commit these kinds of crimes in the first place.”

The 2009 report — now out of date — found there were more than 750,000 pedophiles online at any given time back then, with commercial child porn already a business worth an estimated billions of dollars.

Internet safety programs can only do so much, said Cantor, who wants Canada to take a page from Germany, where pedophiles can seek anonymous treatment from therapists without fear of being reported to authorities.

“We need to rewind and set things back and have true doctor-patient confidently like we used to, so we can get people coming in . . . if they know they are not going to get reported.”

From its inception in August 2006 to March 2016, Ontario’s Provincial Strategy to Protect Children from Sexual Abuse and Exploitation on the Internet has completed 32,808 investigations and laid 11,408 charges against 3,310 people, police said.

During that period, 870 child victims were identified in Ontario, and another 173 internationally, OPP said.

The 80 people charged in latest investigation range in age from 74 to a youth. The child porn probe also overlapped with incidents connected to human trafficking, allowing police to release nine minors who had been forced into the sex trade against their will.

In one incident flagged by Toronto police, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly befriended by two men who lured her with the promise of lucrative work, then shuttled her to hotels around the city to perform sexual services.

In London, police searched two homes in the city and one in St. Thomas this week, arresting four men, all in their 20s.

“In each location, we seized numerous devices that are capable of storing electronic data,” said Const. Chris Stumpf.

To see a list of charges click here.

THE NUMBERS 

Southwestern Ontario arrests:

3 - London

1 - St. Thomas

3 - Chatham

1 - Stratford

1 - Woodstock

2 - Windsor