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Man gets suspended sentence for catfishing

By Sonya McLean and Fiona Ferguson

A young Dublin man who engaged in “catfishing” to lure teenage boys into sharing explicit images of themselves online has been given a suspended sentence after completing a probation bond.

The court heard that the accused man now known as Ben McCarthy (25), formerly Ben Mooney, changed his name by deed poll to McCarthy since evidence was heard in the case two years ago.

Garda Daniel Tracey told that sentencing hearing in October 2018 that the accused had used the name “Nicole Heffernon” to email and contact teenage boys through Facebook.

Gda Tracey explained the accused had been “catfishing”, or pretending to be someone else online, to obtain images of boys in their underwear and naked. The garda said there were also videos of the teenagers masturbating.

He later told gardaí that he had contacted up to 15 teenage boys in the two years before he was caught.

McCarthy, formerly Mooney, of Rathsallagh Park, Shankill, pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to knowingly possessing child porn and possessing 4,000 images and 300 videos of child porn on a Samsung mobile phone at his home on January 5, 2016. He has no previous convictions.

Judge Melanie Greally today noted that McCarthy had engaged whole heartedly during the two year probation bond she had placed him under after first hearing evidence in 2018.

Judge Greally noted he had been detected as a result of activity on social media and was involved in “catfishing.” He had used the identity of a 16-year-old female to engage with teenage males.

She said the aggravating features in the case included that the behaviour was extremely exploitative of the children. She noted there were no victim impact reports.

Judge Greally said the accused was 19 years old at the time of his apprehension and the activity was being conducted while he was on the cusp of adulthood. She noted there had been a large number of reports provided to the court over the years.

She said the separation of his parents took a massive toll on McCarthy. She noted the detrimental effect on his emotional welfare and that he had withdrawn socially and was the victim of bullying.

Judge Greally noted the court had evidence from family and friends who had spoken in high terms of the accused and his capacity for conducting a prosocial lifestyle.

She noted that since the evidence was heard he has undergone intensive probation supervision and undertaken the “Safer Lives” program, engaging extremely positively and making important changes. She noted he had not come to any further adverse attention, had been co-operative and made admissions.

Judge Greally imposed a three year sentence which she suspended for three years on conditions including that he undergo probation supervision.

In March 2019 Judge Greally placed the accused under a two year probation bond and adjourned the case to 2021. She told him he must engage with the Probation Service including attending a sex offender treatment programme and any other courses they deem suitable to address his needs.

At that time she said it was very much in his control as to whether a custodial sentence will be imposed after she indicated she would take into consideration the level at which he engages with the Probation Service over the two years.

She noted that his interest in this particular material developed at a stage in his life while he was still a child himself. She noted that it had come to an end by the time it was ultimately detected.

Evidence was first heard in the case in October 2018, when the accused man was before the court as Ben Mooney. He has since changed his name to McCarthy.

In October 2018 Gda Tracey told Genevieve Coonan BL, prosecuting, last October that the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States contacted gardaí about two email addresses sharing child porn.

One of these email addresses was in the name Nicole Heffernon and the other belonged to a 16-year-old boy.

During the investigation, gardaí spoke with this boy, along with two other males aged 16 and 15 years. They told officers that a person pretending to be a 16-year-old girl had contacted them through Facebook and had been sending them explicit material.

Gda Tracey said the IP address for the Nicole Heffernon email led back to Mooney’s home. He and colleagues got a search warrant for the premises, where Mooney and his parents were present.

Mooney asked his parents to leave him with gardaí and then admitted he had contacted up to 15 teenage boys over the last two years.

Gda Tracey said Mooney gave officers a number of emails, with which he had communicated with other suspected paedophiles through a Russian website. Gardaí also seized two mobile phones and a computer hard drive during the search.

Gda Tracey told Ms Coonan that 70 percent of the 6,000 images on the phones was a mixture of pornography and child pornography. He said the child porn images fell onto the lower two levels of the scale and consisted of children posing erotically, solo masturbation and sexual activity between minors.

He said a “huge percentage” of the material involved young males between ten to 16 years old.

Gda Tracey agreed with Seán Guerin SC, defending, that Mooney made full admissions before forensic analysis had been done on the computer hard drive.

He accepted that Mooney had been 19 years old at the time and that he had been struggling with his sexuality.

He further agreed that Mooney seems to have turned his life around, noting that he was “staying up all night playing computer games and sleeping all day” at the time.

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