In one of the most viewed videos on Dark Justice’s YouTube channel, 45-year-old Roger Lee arrives at Newcastle’s quayside, prepared to meet an underage girl that he had been chatting with on the dating website Badoo. The meeting was the culmination of numerous naked photos sent on his part and 315 miles of travel to meet her, having found out that her parents were away. Instead of the meeting he had been previously promised though, the shaky video uploaded onto Dark Justice’s YouTube channel sees him confronted by two masked men holding a video camera: “Who are you two?” asks a perplexed Lee. “Dark Justice,” answers one. “Police are on the way.”
So who are the shadowy group known as Dark Justice? Scott and Callum, the men behind the name, are a two-man operation based in Newcastle who pose as underage girls on various social media websites. “We started to see news report after news report about child abuse,” they tell me when I ask them how the project began. “Seeing the government make cuts to police, we had to do something. Callum said at one point: ‘Are we going to fucking do this?’ and I said ‘Aye, lets do it!’ The rest is history.”
At the time of writing, their work has led to the investigation of over 20 potential sex offenders. Describing the process, Scott notes: “We’ll go on to dating sites or teen chat sites and set up a profile of a girl. We have about four-five different female decoys. They all give us images and we can request images at any time. Then we just leave it until people message us. Once they do, we reply with ‘Hey, I’m 14 years old.’ Any grown-up at that point has two options: they can continue to talk, or they can report/block.” The chat logs available on Dark Justice’s website - uploaded only after the police investigation has been closed and a sentence decided - confirm this pattern. In Lee’s chat log, for example, we see him bring up reference to a 12-year-old he had previously had sexual relations with; in John Rudd’s, he requests that the 14-year-old girl not wear any underwear when they meet.
The nature of Dark Justice’s activities means that they repeatedly come under accusations of entrapment. Historically, the issue of entrapment - a legal grey area that dictates that anyone who incites the commission of an offence can be held just as guilty as the perpetrator of that same offence - has been hard to overcome for any group that engages in similar anonymous vigilante efforts.
The American show To Catch a Predator struggled with this numerous times: Joseph Roisman, a 26-year-old sailor who showed up at a house hoping to meet a 13-year-old girl but was instead greeted by the show’s host, Chris Hansen, was ultimately acquitted after the judge in charge ruled that the conversations that led to his arrest engaged in entrapment. Indeed, Scott and Callum are well aware of the risks associated with what they do. However, their methods seem watertight - a result of extensive legal advice that aims to protect them from such accusations should they go to court. “We did a lot of planning and research and got some very good legal advice to make sure that the way we do it is 100% legal. We talk to them on a normal level,” they say when I ask about whether they encourage potential offenders while conversing with them, or choose to remain passive.
“We never get sexual and we always try to avoid sexual chats.” Looking over the chat logs available for perusal on their website confirms this: Dark Justice never initiate the conversation, stay off sexual topics, and never propose the meeting themselves. “It’s not entrapment,” says Scott. “You can’t entrap a person who makes their own choices.” Indeed, it seems that Dark Justice’s methods stand in terms of legality: at the time of writing, four offenders have been jailed, and the organisation has never once been accused of breaking the law.
Police attitudes towards the work of Dark Justice and groups like them range from skeptical to hostile. Ron Ball, Warwickshire Police and Crime Commissioner, was firm when contacted for his view on the matter: “I don’t condone or advocate people carrying out these types of ‘investigations’ themselves, no matter how well-intentioned they may be,” he states. “Vigilante groups have no information about the person they are dealing with, have no way of safeguarding potential child victims and their actions could very well jeopardise ongoing police investigations. It takes thousands of hours of dedicated covert police work to get sufficient evidence to prosecute paedophiles – particularly the highly dangerous paedophile rings – which can all too easily be put in jeopardy by ‘stings’ organised by vigilantes.”
Jon Bird, of charitable organisation NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood) takes a more ambivalent view: “For NAPAC, the priority has to be that child abusers stop, but we do realise that it is unlikely to happen. So anything that brings attention to the scale of the problem and brings some abusers to the attention of the police has to be good.”
The risks associated with these sting operations that police commissioner, Ball, alludes to can’t be overlooked. It is difficult to forget the notorious episode of To Catch a Predator involving 56-year-old suspect Louis Conradt Jr., who committed suicide mid-sting operation. In contrast to many of the other cases seen on the show, the police and the show’s producers decided to go to the suspect's home rather than luring him into a house already wired with a camera, as per the usual procedure. When officers arrived at his house, Conradt did not open the door. Although there is no substantial evidence to suggest Conradt was aware of their presence, when they managed to enter the house, they found that he had shot himself. The handling of the episode generated heavy backlash and criticism from the media and the legal profession. Arguably, it was this incident that led to the show ultimately being taken off the air.
Likewise, this July, a 67-year old suspect, Michael Duff, who believed he was meeting an underage girl, was publicly outed by a now-defunct group called True Justice. True Justice were allegedly based in the North East - their website no longer exists, so information about them is scarce. However, they uploaded the video of Duff’s confrontation prior to consulting the police. Two days after being released on bail, Duff committed suicide. The group bears no relation to Dark Justice who, at the time, heavily criticised the former’s decision to upload the video to social media prior to any court proceedings or police investigation.
Needless to say, for Dark Justice, catching predators online isn’t something anyone should try doing at home: “To anyone thinking of doing this: DON’T,” they tell me. “It might look easy but it’s not and never assume it is! What we do takes a massive amount of legal work.” Indeed, it’s true that Dark Justice only upload the videos to their website and release the name of the perpetrator after they have been found guilty and sentenced.
With the numerous risks inherent in their activities in mind though, should Dark Justice be leaving their work to professionals? “It’s crazy,” they tell me in response. “The government talk more about groups like us than they do about the real issue: child abuse. It’s never: ‘they’re showing us there’s an issue’. It’s always: ‘they shouldn’t be doing it.’ Well, we wouldn’t be doing it if they did more. Solve the real problem and you get rid of groups like us.”
So does targeting paedophiles in this way actually get to the root of the problem? Enter the German-based Shadows Project. When I asked Max Weber, its founder, about the representation of paedophilia in the media, he pointed out that the British media revolves around a praxis of equating paedophilia to child sexual abuse and creating monsters out of paedophiles, regardless of whether or not they have offended.
This is a vastly damaging and limiting approach in terms of fostering attitudes towards paedophilia that ultimately, as Weber also points out, “teaches pedophiles they were made to abuse kids, made to be offenders, and discourages those who don't want to offend, therefore making child abuse more likely.” He continues, “People hate ‘paedophiles,’ instead of ‘child molesters,’ which hinders prevention and prevents paedophiles who feel an urge to abuse from seeking help.” Shadows Project offers a space for such paedophiles, known as ‘celibate’ paedophiles: individuals who have never acted on their compulsions, and want to reach out for help.
I asked Weber to talk a little more about the goals of the project. “The Shadow Project aims to fight the stigmatisation of non-offending paedophiles and the misinformation that paedophilia is the same as sexual offending, as well as to encourage paedophiles not to offend in the first place.” Although the Shadows Project itself does not provide therapy for paedophiles, it fully supports the Dunkelfeld Prevention Project, currently in operation in 11 centres across Germany.
The therapy that the Dunkelfeld Prevention Project provides is confidential and free of charge: a form of cognitive behaviour therapy that takes place in both individual and group settings, usually unfolding over a period of two years. It tends to entail an analysis of past sexual desires and behaviours, with the ultimate aim of building up the subject’s self-regulatory behaviour so that they can avoid potentially abusive situations in the future.
Since its inauguration, more than 430 men have started the treatment; it continues to be in high demand with long waiting lists, and studies carried out, both within Dunkelfeld and by external psychologists (Beier et al, 2014, Neutze et al, 2012), who have noted the success of its methods. What does this all show us then? Ultimately, we need to be careful in the way we present paedophiles in the media. Creating destructive stigmas that alienate those who might want to seek help is a fruitless exercise that benefits no one, least of all the children we should be protecting.
Offering confidential treatment that aims to teach potential offenders to control their sexual impulses is a safer, more productive, and at its core, a more sensible exercise. However, in the case of those who are offending and putting children’s safety at risk, it is obviously important that someone steps in to stop them: whether it be the police or independent groups like Dark Justice.
Although the work of the Shadows Project differs drastically from that of Dark Justice, it's fair to say that both groups are very much of the school of thought that paedophiles make their own choices. Dark Justice steps in to help when those choices demonstrate a premeditated potential to endanger others; Shadows Project and DPP are there for when an active choice is made to change and live responsibly.
Perhaps society could benefit from a conciliatory approach between each way of thinking, which aims to protect and educate rather than stigmatise, but also one that seeks to actively help or stop paedophiles from offending. As Weber suggests, “Maybe an approach like the one of Dark Justice - posing as kids, not initiating contact or sexual topics/meetings, punishing the men trying to sexualise the conversation/contact or to meet for sex - but without the public shaming part (videos), with education about real risks and about possible treatment for potential abusers. [That] could do more good.”
It is no secret that as a society we continually exhibit a tendency to avoid the more uncomfortable questions in favour of approaches that instead turn disturbing topics into simple abstractions. The simple black-and-white explanation is easier to comprehend, and for that reason seems more palatable. Ultimately, however, it is also the most dangerous: there is nothing constructive in propagating a culture of shame that casts non-offending paedophiles who want to change themselves for the better in the same light as serial abusers. But neither is there benefit in staying ignorant to the problem.
It is a complex problem that we must explore with intelligence and sensitivity, navigating a solution that will bring about change. Ultimately, it should not be used as a chance to turn paedophiles into monsters. As one of the characters in a promotional video for the Prevention Project Dunkenfeld says: “No one is guilty for their sexual inclination - but everyone is responsible for their behaviour.”
Words: Catherine Karellis