A Wicklow native who lived in Portlaoise has been given a suspended sentence for having close to 1,000 images of child pornography downloaded on his laptop.
Portlaoise Circuit Court heard today (Friday, January 12) that Philip Dignam (33), a native of Wicklow but with an address at Rathevan Close, Portlaoise, had images and video clips featuring boys and girls under 17 engaged in sexual activity with other children and adults, with some of the video material involving animals.
Evidence was given by Garda John Masterson, along with State prosecutor, Mr Will Fennelly, that the matter arose out of an investigation by the FBI into a child pornography website known as Playpen, which could only be accessed through the dark web.
The dark web is an internet facility which requires special software to be accessible.
Between February and March, 2015, the FBI tacked down and seized the server hosting the website, but they continued to operate the website in order to track down users.
Garda Masterson said that at the time, there were 500,000 subscribers to the site and the FBI were able to pinpoint particular users.
A UPC customer at Rathevan Close was identified and on May 17, 2016, the gardaí obtained a search warrant for this address. The court heard that this customer was the partner of the accused, who is not charged with any offence. When the gardaí attended at the house for the purpose of the search, the accused was not present, nor was his laptop. The accused later presented himself at Portlaoise Garda Station with the laptop, where he made a voluntary caution statement.
The laptop was examined and 946 images of child pornography were discovered. Garda Masterson said that these images were of boys and girls under the age of 17 engaged in sexual activity with other children and adults, as well as images of children’s genitalia.
There were also 13 video clips of girls under the age of 17, some clips showing girls on their own, some involving animals, and some involving adults.
The accused admitted downloading the images and said he accessed the website regularly as he had an interest in teenage pornography.
The accused had no previous convictions.
Defence for the accused said that images of these nature are graded under law from one to five, with grade five being the most serious. Of the images possessed by the accused, a small number were grade four, while the majority were grades one to three.
Defence said that the accused gave an account that when he was 14 he was presented online with a pop-up message that brought him to a site featuring teenaged Russian girls, girls who were his own age at the time.
This stayed with him and during a period of depression he engaged in the activity for which he was before the court, said defence. This activity happened over a limited space of time.
Garda Masterson confirmed that the accused registered with the website in November, 2014, meaning he accessed it for around four months.
Defence went on to say that the accused had said he was not attracted to children, nor interested in the very young, and he felt disgust at what he was doing. The accused did not share the images, nor did he make any financial gain.
A report placed the accused at a low risk of reoffending, between a 5 and 7% chance. Defence said that Dignam was disgusted with himself after viewing the images. Defence said that the accused’s rehabilitation is ongoing and he is actively seeking therapy, having engaged with a therapist for five or six sessions.
In sentencing, Judge Keenan Johnson said that it would be very beneficial for the accused if he signed up for the One in Four programme, which provides psychotherapy and advocacy services to those who have experienced sexual violence.
The judge noted that there would be huge reputational damage to the accused and society tends to shun such individuals.
An aggravating factor in the matter was the number of images downloaded, and the premeditation involved.
In mitigation, Judge Johnson noted the accused’s plea of guilt, his fulsome cooperation with the gardaí, and the fact that no price was paid for the images. The judge said that had the accused paid, he would have been contributing to the ongoing activities as featured on the website.
Saying that the offences ranked at the lower to mid-range of seriousness, Judge Johnson imposed a one-year sentence. However, he said that the continued rehabilitation of the accused was more important than the immediate imposition of a custodial sentence, and agreed to suspend the sentence for five years, on condition the accused engage with probation services for two years; he enter into a peace bond of five years; and he complete the One in Four course.