An extensive operation led by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has identified 46 victims of child exploitation leading to the arrest of 14 Australian men in connection to an online network of child abuse material (CAM).
The alleged offenders, aged between 20 to 48-years-old, face 828 charges combined and are accused of allegedly producing or sharing child abuse material. The ages of the child victims ranged from 16 months to 15 years old.
They also all face accusations of bestiality relating to four animals.
AFP Acting Commander Child Protection Operations Christopher Woods said the scale of offending uncovered in the Operation Arkstone network as “unprecedented” in an AFP-led operation.
“The dedicated investigators and forensic specialists from the AFP, NSW Police and HSI have spent most of 2020 working tirelessly after each arrest to piece together information that identified more victims and the people allegedly abusing and exploiting them,” Woods said.
Operation Arkstone started in February, with the arrest of a 30-year-old Wyong man from Sydney, New South Wales. He was charged with 89 counts of child abuse, including alleged contact offending of two children.
An AFP investigation into his online activity, reviewing his laptop and phone revealed social media forums where users were producing and sharing the CAM online.
This led to a cross-agency operation involving NSW Police, Queensland Police Service, Western Australia Police, AFP and U.S. Homeland Security.
Investigators continued analysis of photos, videos, and online content has led to more search warrants being carried out and more arrests. Minor details from evidence have been useful for identifying child victims and bringing them to safety.
Further two men were charged with alleged child abuse after search warrants were carried out in NSW and Queensland between Nov. 3-5.
One of them—a 27-year-old man, former child care worker, is facing over 300 charges, including indecent assault of a child under 16 years old. He is due to be heard in Port Macquarie Court on Jan. 21, 2021.
Police allege the man and his partner a 22-year-old man used their positions within the community, and other deceptive means to gain access to 30 children.
In NSW 39 child victims have been identified, after investigators arrested eight men on 577 charges.
The alleged offenders held roles of responsibility within the community such as a child care worker, volunteer soccer coach, disability support worker, an electrician, supermarket employee and chef.
“What this highlights is that offenders are across age groups, occupations and are in positions of trust. Parents need to be vigilant about who has access to their children,” said Woods.
“No child should be subjected to abuse and violence from people who hold high positions of trust in their lives, whether it be a family member, child care worker or soccer coach,” he said.
In Queensland, police have brought 30 charges to three men, with one child victim identified, and in Western Australia, six children have been found with 221 charges against three-man have been lodged.
The operation Arkstone network has links through online forums to alleged sex offenders across the world.
So far, 146 referrals have been made from suspects living in Europe, Asia, the United States and Canada, and New Zealand.
Cross agency collaborations have also led to the arrests of three men from the United States, facing multiple CAM offences.