Catching a predator: How police catch child sex attackers

CATCHING the monsters who prey on vulnerable children takes time, perseverance, and is a job only some of Townsville's best detectives can crack.

It comes with plenty of setbacks, and with time against them, it's a tough task this small group of police dedicate their lives to.

The predators they work to prosecute are everywhere, from family and sports coaches, to the once pinnacles of their community- priests.

No-one reported their deviant behaviour to police at the peak of historical sex abuse, including those who one of his victims, Kathleen Walsh told as an 11-year-old girl.

They were the pillars of their society, too good to lay a hand on an innocent girl or boy, but now their victims are coming forward and asking today's police for help.

Kathleen Walsh. Picture: Shae Beplate.
Kathleen Walsh. Picture: Shae Beplate.



Townsville's Child Protection Unit is currently investigating at least 35 historical cases of child sexual abuse from around the region, with more coming forward all the time.

One of the unit's historical detectives, Detective Sergeant Nicole Stewart, sees, listens and works with the victims that represent that number, saying catching the abusers is a tedious and frustrating task.

She was the lead detective investigating the extent of Neville Creen's abuse, and became one of the few people one of his victims, Ms Walsh, trusted.

"Time is the biggest impediment to this," Sgt Stewart said.

"Memories fade, people pass away … buildings get demolished. So you've got all these challenges.

"Some (cases) just hit roadblock after roadblock … the house was burnt down … there is no school records because they got lost in a flood.

"But I guess that's the joy of our job, the digging."


Neville Creen pleaded guilty to sexual abusing Kathleen Walsh.
Neville Creen pleaded guilty to sexual abusing Kathleen Walsh.

Sgt Stewart said each case is different, with the average investigation taking about two years to compile before it makes it to court.

Reports of the sexual abuse often came to them from the victim, but also from online reporting, friends, and the Catholic Church.

"Often a lot of these victims have had mental health and psychological issues because of what's happened to them.

"So we have to be very mindful of that and work with them on that."

But some victims struggle too greatly with the pain of reliving their trauma, putting the case at a standstill for months, or permanently.

She believes just 8 per cent of all historical sexual abuse complaints make it to court.

"We have to get them to go into a lot of detail in their statements.

"So in their mind, they are almost reliving what happened to them, things that (have been) pushed back for 20 or 30 years.

"So sometimes we'll get through that first or second appointment, then get a major setback … or they'll either fall off the face of the earth."


"Why wasn't it reported at the time?"

It's a question many ask when hearing the revelations of sexual abuse within the church during the 60s and 70s, but one that's easily answered by today's police.

Head of the region's child protection unit, Detective Senior Sergeant Dave Miles said police and community expectations were different when pulpit rape was ripe, and the legislation reflected this.

"Your priest was deemed to be the pinnacle in the community," Sen-Sgt Miles said.

"So the community expectations would be such that probably it (sexual assault) wouldn't be reported.

"They didn't talk about things like sex offenders, or didn't talk about child abuse … but as society has matured, so has the police force."

The laws at the time highlighted this imbalance.

The offence of grooming a child didn't exist in the peak of institutionalised abuse.

The serious charge of maintaining a sexual relationship with a child, which has a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, only came about in the 90s.

Neville Creen
Neville Creen

Det Miles said as society has matured, the acceptance of sexual abuse has shifted, and police have become more experienced.

"With that has come technical expertise, forensic expertise, specialist interviewing techniques … we have a much larger capacity to do this kind of work."

The truths of this kind of abuse would finally come to light 25 or 30 years later for men, and sooner for women, says Sgt Miles.

He said stigma was a huge factor, which led to less than five per cent of sexual assaults on men being reported.

Sgt Miles said many victims were spooked at the thought of others knowing about their abuse, and would often struggle when police tried to reach out to potential witnesses.

"When you start the process, and you speak to those people, they can destroy family units, they can tear the dynamics apart. Or they can release a whole range of other victims and actions and activities."

Detective senior sergeant Dave Miles. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.
Detective senior sergeant Dave Miles. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.



It takes a special kind of police officer to sit, listen, and bring justice to a victim of sexual abuse after years of staying silent.

But the job also takes a toll on them, and many police who have been and gone couldn't handle the kind of horror they deal with every day.

Sgt Stewart said they learn to disassociate and return to normal life when they walk out of the office.

Kathleen Walsh
Kathleen Walsh

"You move in between those jobs, you have to develop an ability to separate yourself from that work.

"And then obviously, have a release. If you have that it ensures that at the end of the day, you can go back to being a mum or dad, a normal person in society."

The process is long, draining, and sometimes disheartening, but Sgt Stewart said it's all worth it to see the victims happy.

"It can be frustrating when you get stuck and you can't go to court.

"But it also doesn't make it is less valuable when we don't win. Because that doesn't mean it hasn't really happened.

"When we do get a win, and even if it's a small win, you don't always agree with what the sentences have been, but none of that matters if the victim's happy."

Originally published as Catching a predator: How police catch child sex attackers

Kathleen Walsh
Kathleen Walsh

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