Bob Brehl: Courts must adjust to tech advances

  • November 2, 2019

Every day, we’re bombarded with the virtues of technology — from quantum leaps in health care to helping police solve crimes to simple conveniences enjoyed by holding more computing power in our hands than what was used to put humans on the moon.

But far too often we’re also seeing the downsides of technology.

It can be job losses to robotics. Or isolation and anxiety in young people brought on, in part, by constant screen watching and being “plugged in” at all times. Or manipulation of the democratic process and elections. Or many other things that have become mundane and tolerable as progress marches on.

And every so often we come across something linked to technology that is so sinister that it can make you long for “the good old days,” until you realize the “good stuff” in technology can also help right some of the wrongs, too.

Such is the case from Saskatchewan that re-surfaced and involves horrible child abuses in the Philippines and Romania. Technology enabled a Saskatoon man to commit heinous crimes thousands of miles and oceans away.

In October, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal increased the sentence for Philip Chicoine from the original 12 years to 15 years.

Chicoine pleaded guilty in 2017 to paying impoverished mothers overseas to live-stream the sexual abuse of their children. From 2011 to 2017, he paid the women a total of $23,000 to sexually abuse their own children and stream it so he could direct the actions as they were happening and later turn it into child pornography. The victims were between 10 months and 14 years old.

Police uncovered the crimes after Chicoine uploaded child porn to a social media account. His child porn collection, consisting of more than 10,000 images and videos, was later described by the RCMP’s lead investigator, Cpl. Jared Clarke from Saskatchewan’s Internet Child Exploitation Unit, as “vile and dehumanizing.”

“It was some of the worst stuff I’ve ever seen. It caused nightmares, it caused me trouble dealing with my own kids at home,” CBC News quoted Clarke, adding he sought counselling to deal with the images haunting him.

During Chicoine’s trial, the Crown presented videos seized from his computer. Many involved torture and bondage, with the victims’ screams heard throughout the courtroom. 

In tacking on three more years to the sentence, the Appeal Court sided with the Crown’s argument that the original judge treated the offences too lightly by focusing on the fact that Chicoine did not actually touch the children. In other words, technology enabled him to commit crimes overseas that he would not have been able to commit otherwise.

“He was present in real time and directed and orchestrated the assaults,” reads the appellant court’s written decision. “His conduct equated to ‘hands-on’ sexual offending. Advances in technology give new meaning to that concept and courts must adjust to that changing reality.”

When it comes to child pornography, technology has aided investigators immensely in finding perpetrators. One of the more high-profile cases in Canada was that of disgraced Bishop Raymond Lahey.

In August 2009, then-bishop Lahey issued an historic apology and $15-million settlement to victims of sexual abuse by a priest in the Antigonish diocese during the 1950s and ’60s. And one month later, returning from Thailand, Lahey was arrested for possessing child porn on his computer, including 588 images, 33 videos and several graphic stories of boys engaging in sexual acts.

The same day the Appeal Court increased Chicoine’s sentence, British and American authorities investigating a child pornography site run from South Korea announced the arrest of 337 suspects in 38 countries, including Canada.

Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said the “Welcome to Video” site contained 250,000 videos that were downloaded a million times by users across the world, according to CBS News. “The website monetized the sexual abuse of children and was one of the first to offer sickening videos for sale using the cryptocurrency bitcoin,” the NCA said in a statement.

It operated on the so-called “dark web,” which can only be accessed by special software and is widely used to traffic various illegal content and products.

The fight continues to eliminate child pornography and protect children. Victory appears elusive, but the Saskatchewan appellant court has sent a signal that online sex offenders will be punished more harshly than in the past as courts adjust to the realities in our technology-driven world.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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