THERE is an internet sex abuse timebomb ticking in North Wales, with an increase in online child sex offence cases in Denbighshire.
But North Wales Police say there has been “no significant rise” in the overall number of reports relating to child sex abuse in the county.
This week Robert Morley, a 67-year-old pensioner from Parc near Bala, was jailed for two years for child and animal porn offences.
“It’s clear that we are facing an e-safety timebomb with this being one of the biggest child protection issues of our time,” said Claire Lilley, safety technology lead at the NSPCC.
The charity says one of the major child protection issues facing young people today is abuse via the internet and mobile phones.
Tuesday was national Safer Internet Day, an event used to highlight online child protection issues.
Peter Davies, chief executive at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said: “Situations can rapidly feel out of control and on a daily basis at the centre we hear from very scared and concerned children who are desperate for help.”
The admission from North Wales Police about the increase in online child sex offence cases came as part of a Free Press investigation into the frequency of convictions in Denbighshire for crimes relating to matters such as the possession of child abuse images, sexual assault and rape.
Police attribute the increase to both improvements in technology and a surge in confidence in the way the force deals with such offences.
“The message is a simple one, if you use your laptop, PC or mobile device to produce, view or distribute child pornography you will be caught,” said a spokesman for North Wales Police.
In the past year alone the Free Press has reported on five men from Denbighshire being sentenced in court for crimes relating to child sex abuse.
The culprits have received a variety of sentences ranging from a two year community order to a 12 year jail term.
In addition over the past three years five disturbing cases of sexual abuse resulting in prison sentences have featured on the pages of the Free Press as well as numerous other convictions with community orders.
Last year the Free Press revealed that there had been a 74 per cent increase in the number of sexual assaults on children in Denbighshire in the financial year 2010 -11 (the most recent figures available).
There were 61 cases that year, compared to 35 the previous year and 37 the year before that.
The increase in Denbighshire compares to a decrease from 35 to 32 in Anglesey over the same period and from 66 to 48 in Gwynedd.
In Conwy there was an increase from 35 to 41, in Flintshire from 47 to 72 and in Wrexham from 68 to 71.
As part of this investigation the Free Press asked for more recent figures from the police, but was told for further information we would need to submit a Freedom of Information request.
In the wake of recent national headlines about the sexual abuse of children, the Free Press asked North Wales Police why there seemed to be so many cases in Denbighshire.
A spokesman for the force said: “There has been no significant rise in the number of reported cases in Denbighshire but an increase in the online offences.
“Possession of indecent images is linked to referrals from CEOP (Child Exploitation and ON-Line Protection).
“Technology used to investigate offences of this nature improves almost daily and as our expertise improves so will the number of offenders we identify and arrest.”
DCI Mark Chesters of the North Wales Police Strategic Public Protection Unit said: “Any perceived increase in cases reported to North Wales Police reflects on the increased confidence victims have in the way we manage and investigate sexual offences.
“In addition we actively engage with school across the region with police school liaison officers utilising CEOP materials to educate and inform young people.
“Working with secondary schools we also promote ‘Cats Paw’, a workshop aimed at heightening awareness of sexual offences and encouraging victims to come forward.”
Last October the NSPCC called for an urgent crackdown on the illegal trade in child abuse images after 54 arrests were made by North Wales Police the previous year.
One offender was caught with more than 9,000 images.
In 1990 – before the internet became hugely popular - the Home Office estimated there were just 7,000 hard copy images in circulation in the UK.
Now, at least five times that amount are being confiscated every single day.
Since 1995 the number of people convicted in England and Wales has risen more than 1,700 per cent from 85 to 1,495 last year (2011).
A North Wales Police spokesman said the force “work closely with Wales Probation Trust and other agencies to identify relevant offenders, develop risk management plans, share information and focus available resources in a way which best protects the public”.
This multi-agency group is called MAPPA and works to “reduce the re-offending behaviour of sexual and violent offenders in order to protect the public, including previous victims, from serious harm”.
The Free Press investigation follows many reports, both across North Wales and nationally, in recent months relating to child abuse.
For the full special report, including recent convictions for child sex offence cases, see this week's Free Press.