In 2003 it was a place known for child sex tourism. In a country with corrupt government officials and ineffective law enforcement. It started in the early 1990s, poverty was rampant following a brutal Khmer Rouge regime that was responsible for the killing fields; one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. With Cambodia's economic and social structures in ruins, the next 10 years weren't much better under Vietnamese rule. This created an environment where many families saw prepubescent prostitution of family members as a way to survive.
The results were disturbing. Hundreds of Western middle-aged pedophiles were travelling to Cambodia to exploit this newly available industry.
Among them was a Canadian by the name of Christopher Neil. A teacher from Maple Ridge, British Columbia he taught ESL in schools in Asia and made trips to Cambodia. In 2004, German police discovered more than 200 online images of a Caucasian man sexually abusing 12 young Asian boys. The mans face was digitally altered, however experts were able to unswiral the photo and revealed it was Christopher Neil.
That led Interpol to launch the largest worldwide manhunt to date. RCMP Forensic specialist Brian McConaghy was gathering evidence against other child predators assaulting children in Asia. Soon after Christopher Neil's file ended up in his hands.
He had been working the Willy Pickton file with a variety of different police agencies including Vancouver City Police. Through that file they asked him to get involved with a sexual predator from Vancouver who was going to Asia to assault children. They solved that crime and it was Canada's first conviction. Christopher Neil's file was no different. He was asked to look at the evidence that had been uploaded; the swirled face of a man assaulting children in Cambodia. After viewing evidence of the assaults he was horrified by what he saw. He says it is hard to believe what some people will do to children. As far as he is concerned it is a profound mental illness. There is a degree of abuse particularly of children in the developing world. They don't have medical services, they don't have stable families, social services, police, judiciary, they have nothing to defend them. These indivduals will go t these vulnerable parts of the world to target children that are unprotected. It is the worst form of predatorial behaviour.
In 2007 as a result of the Interpol investigation of "Swirl Face", Thai police arrested Christopher Neil for 4 un-related counts of molesting and distributing pornographic images of 2 Thai boys, aged 9 and 13. Neil was convicted and spent 5 years in jail. Upon his release in 2012, Neil returned to Canada where he was immediately arrested and given strict conditions for his release. He subsequently breached those conditions and was re-arrested twice. Lost in all of this were the original assaults against the 12 Cambodian and Vietnamese boys for which Neil was never charged.
After leaving the RCMP in 2008 Brian McConaghy devoted himself full time to Ratanak International. A Canadian Christian Humanitarian Organization that he founded. Its primary objective is to help survivors of sexual abuse and human trafficking in Cambodia. Brian also continued to work on the Christopher Neil trial. Determined to find evidence that would lead to the location of the crime scene where the original Cambodian assault had taken place.
While Canadian laws allow for the prosecution of offenders that commit sex crimes overseas, such cases are rare due to the challenges of attaining the evidence required for a conviction. The key for the Neil case was to find the location of the crime scene. It was a long difficult process of establishing from the photographs all taken inside a single room in the building. They forensically assessed those photographs and figuring out from the inside what the outsuide of the building would look like. Looking for details like sun exposure, building defects and architectural styles Brian was able to narrow down the possibilities.
Brian received reliable intelliegence that one community in Cambodia was the most likely neighbourhood to find this building. He narrowed it down from Google maps as to what buildings were a possibility. Then he started walking the streets and looking at the possibilities. As soon as he saw the building from the outside he knew that was it. He could not gain access as it belonged to somebody. He was stumped until 2012 when he found out that the building was up for sale. He made arrangements to go and see with a fellow staff member. While he was in the crime scene room, his fellow staff member was with the real estate person measuring everything. While they did that he did a full forensic examination. He got everything they needed.
Crossroads Relief and Development Director David Shelley was in Cambiodia at the time to meet with Brian. He was told about this story and the building and something rose up in David. He thought this was a Canadian that did these crimes. He thought we needed to get that building, buy it back. Take it from a place that's been used for abuse and redeem and restore it. Make it a sanctuary for children, instead of a place to be attacked and abused. They purchased the building together.
The crime scene was now theirs, which put him in a very strong position to testify in court. With this evidence Christopher Neil was arrested in Canada in March of 2014 and pleaded guilty to 5 new charges, including 2 counts of sexual interferance in Cambodia. In late April a B.C. court room heard final arguments in his sentencing hearing.
Until that happened what we weren't able to talk about Crossroads Relief and Development's role along with Ratanak International in preserving key evidence in the prosecutions case against Neil. They went into the sentencing hearing knowing they had a guilty plea. It was a matter of determing what evidence to speak to how long the sentence should be.
We need to stand up and act as a voice for young people that have no voice in the developing world.
Following the sentencing trial of Christopher Neil, there are many questions still to be answered.
Does the length of Neil's sentence fit the crime?
Former RCMP Forensic Expert Brian McConaghy doesn't think so. He says, there is room to complain in terms of our justice system. In terms of the kind of sentences we see for child sex assault. If we are going to see change it needs to come from Parliament. We need laws to be upgraded to the point where as a society we say, "this is absolutely not acceptable and we'll throw the book at you if you abuse children in this way".
We need to recognize children's suffering who have been victimized, and honour them by taking this seriously. It also acts as deterrent both in the short term and long term.
In April 2016 McConaghy gave testimony at Christopher Neil's B.C. sentencing hearing. He helped to provide culture context to these types of cases.
His understanding of both Christopher Neil and other pedophiles like him is they feel they are assisting the families of the victims. They are poor, they don't have money. They facilitate them by giving them money. They would be desperate without them. That is garbage. That is not the case at all. If you want to help families that are poor. You can give them money. You don't have to assault the children to give a family money.
After breeching the conditions of his release twice since returning to Canada is the risk of Christopher Neil reoffending.
Neil's defence argued that the risk to the community was low for Neil to directly reoffend with a child in Canada, the risk is much higher however when it comes to accessing child pornography on the internet. Brian says that as a society we need to be very cautious of individuals who are demonstrated repeat offenders, who are predators of children. We need to protect children from that.
A key piece of the Crowns case against Christopher Neil was the impact of sexual assaults on the victims. If not for Brian McConaghy and other anti-trafficking advocates who are determined to see justice served, this case may have never been tried. After an intense search, one of the victims was finally found. Endless amounts of time, energy, and work had to go into removing him from the community he lived in. Where he could be interviewed in a neutral secret location under very special circumstances so that he wouldn't be shamed. He was already virtually suicidal because of the assaults. He is shattered, shamed, and terrified of being exposed within his community. In that society for a male to be sexually assaulted it completely diminishes his masculinity. He is open for mocking. His chances of getting jobs. The implications and ripple effects are massive for him. Completely aside from the psychological damage done for such an assault. If it is untreated and trauma is not dealt with than its normally tragic in terms of the impact on lives. In Cambodia they do not have available to them, anywhere near the medical services, social services, counselling, or therapy that we have here.
A tangible way to help the Cambodian victims and those at risk, has been the transformation of the building in which the crimes took place. In the 2 years since the purchase of the building, it has become a safe haven for boys who have experienced abuse or are at risk in the community. It gives children who are being traffic hope. It has been restored into a place that is safe and protected. Crossroads is working with Ratanak International to repurpose a place for good what has been used for such dark things for who knows how long.
Brian says, if God didn't want us to move into dark places he wouldn't have moved into any of our hearts. We're dark, we're a mess. God says NO, I choose to move into your life, and I will redeem it, and I will restore it, and I will cleanse it, and I will make it useful, and I will make it beautiful. It's the same model with this building. We will take the darkest of the dark and say NO, we are going to reclaim this for Christ. It is an exciting process. What better place to bring hope than a place that is known as the killing fields in terms of it's previous genocide and torment. And particular communities within that where lives are still tormented in terms of systematic sexual abuse. It is exactly where God wants us to be.
With the conclusion of the legal case we can now further transform this infamous building. They will renovate this building, paint it, fix the windows, fix the things that need fixing. The dream is ready. There are children living there who are safe. They go to school every day. They come home and they sleep. They are protected. It will never be a place where abuse happens again. It will be forever redeemed.
Sometimes we have a sense of Christian missions being about distributing Bibles, and food, and compassion, and the gospel purely. If we look at the character of God, we see a God that longs for justice. In fact, he demands justice. Compassion is appropriate and necessary. Care and love is appropriate and necessary, but the component we have to incorporate into that is a sense of justice for the lives around us. A sense that it is not right to ignore the wrongs that have been done to them. We also need to protect others in the future. We have to do justice in the hopes that people who wold assault and destroy young lives, are prevented from doing it in the future. To fail to protect those future children, is far from loving them. We have a responsibility.
Brian wants to challenge people that this issue is doable. Issues of justice are hard but we have a role to play. More importantly Christians have a role to play. It seems impossible but it is doable if Christ is in the mix. We are inclined to think we don't have any power. God has given us all kinds of power; we just need to be wise to use it. He calls us to work with government, local institutions, community services, police services, medical services, and engage in the community, and transform lives.
*Christopher Neil was sentenced to 5.5 years; 6 months more than the Prosecution had asked for. That includes breaking his probation and accessing child porn on a number of occasions, it includes the assaults on 2 children. The sentences for each child were three years but they run concurrently so he serves them both at the same time. He is also restricted for 5 years from using the internet, except for seeking employment. He is restricted for life from going near playgrounds or anywhere children congregate. His passport is taken away for 3 years, which is concerning. By law Mr. Neil receives double time for the 2 years he spent waiting for trial so he will spend only another 14 months in jail.
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