Almost 50 children have been rescued from alleged abusers, with a soccer coach and a childcare worker among 14 men charged.
Federal police have rescued 46 kids from the grips of their alleged abusers, including a childcare worker and a soccer coach, in one of the biggest child sexual abuse cases Australian authorities have ever cracked.
And police believe there could be more alleged abusers and victims out there.
Detectives in Queensland, NSW and Western Australia have arrested 14 men on 828 charges in what investigators have dubbed an alleged “abhorrent systemic sexual abuse” of children, some of whom were just babies.
There were 39 child victims in NSW, one in Queensland, and six in WA allegedly subjected to the production and/or sharing of child abuse material to an online network of Australian and international “peers”.
Four animals were also allegedly subjected to abuse discovered as part of the operation, with charges laid for bestiality.
Among the men charged, aged between 20 and 48, some are accused of sexually abusing children who ranged in age from 16 months to 15 years and recording the abuse to share online.
One of the men charged was a 27-year-old former childcare worker from northern NSW who faces 303 charges related to sexual intercourse and indecent assault of at least 30 children, allegedly including some at his childcare centre. He will face Port Macquarie Court on January 21 next year.
“One of the key allegations is offending in a position of authority,” NSW Police State Crime Commander, Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith told reporters on Wednesday.
The accused’s 22-year-old male partner was also charged with multiple offences, with police saying he “allegedly abused children his partner accessed through deceptive means”.
A 30-year-old St Clair soccer coach allegedly used his position to abuse seven children, and police further allege he produced a “large quantity of abhorrent child abuse material” to circulate.
He faces 44 charges as well as bestiality offences.
A retail assistant, chef, disability support worker, electrician, supermarket employee, IT worker and a court officer were also allegedly among the network of men.
AFP agents have spent most of 2020 identifying victims, after the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation received a report from US counterparts in February about online material allegedly being accessed.
US authorities had been sourcing social media sites for alleged abusers before uncovering the international web, United States Homeland Security Investigations Australia attache Adam Parks said.
The tip-off from American counterparts led to the initial arrest of a 30-year-old Wyong man in February over the alleged abuse of two children, but police say a forensic mobile phone search revealed a much wider network across Queensland, NSW and WA, resulting in the creation of Operation Arkstone.
Mr Parks said he could not provide details of which social media companies were used but said they had “proactively reported this material” to US law enforcement.
“Then through our law enforcement channels they were able to share it to Australian (authorities),” he told reporters.
Three men were also arrested in the US in relation to the alleged global child abuse ring, but Mr Parks could not provide any further details about their locations or involvement given the case is before American courts.
“I can't give a lot of detail about those individuals. However, there are several investigations and I think the referral numbers speak for themselves that this is a network. It’s global network,” Mr Parks said.
“Although rooted in Australia that includes a network in the United States as well, and really globally, so therefore we're responding.
“This is not a victimless crime, there are children in those images and behind those screens that exist.”
In a statement, the AFP said “evidence gathering at each arrest led to the unravelling of this alleged crime network”.
“Each warrant led to the discovery of more alleged offenders and more children to be saved from alleged ongoing abuse,” the statement read.
In June, nine men and 14 alleged child victims were identified.
Since then, the additional alleged offenders and victims have been identified, most recently resulting in the arrest of two men after search warrants were executed in NSW and Queensland between November 3-5.
In total, eight men in NSW were charged with 577 offences, three men in Queensland were charged with 30 offences, and three men in SA face 221 charges.
The operation identified alleged sex offenders in Europe, Asia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, with 146 international referrals made.
Police believe they are likely to uncover more.
AFP Assistant Commissioner Eastern Command Justine Gough said investigators would “comb through material” to identify more victims and possible offenders.
She said authorities would not rule our further arrests on Australian soil and offshore.
AFP Acting Commander Child Protection Operations Christopher Woods said the scale of offending was unprecedented.
“No child should be subjected to abuse and violence from people who hold high positions of trust in their lives, whether it be a family member, childcare worker or soccer coach,” Mr Woods said.
“These men allegedly produced child abuse material for the depraved pleasure of their peers with absolutely no thought to the lasting effects their actions would have on these children.
“Police will allege Operation Arkstone revealed a network of abuse, where the alleged offenders in the forums encouraged and emboldened each other to engage in acts of depravity and abuse of children.”