Adrian Humphreys , National Post
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2007
As the international hunt continues for a Canadian teacher suspected of sexually abusing children in Asia, child-protection activists are warning that pedophiles are increasingly seeking work overseas as English-language instructors as a way to feed their illicit desires.
Christopher Paul Neil, 32, was an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Korea when Interpol released his photograph and named him as a man sexually abusing young children in Southeast Asia in pictures shared over the Internet.
The Maple Ridge, B.C., man remains a fugitive and was last seen arriving in Thailand at Bangkok's international airport last Thursday on a flight from South Korea.
He had worked at several schools in South Korea for five years, although the photographs of young boys engaged in sex acts were taken in Vietnam and Cambodia.
"The teaching profession is very, very vulnerable. The English-language teachers are so needed, in such demand. It is such a status thing to have an English teacher at a school," said Rosalind Prober, president of Beyond Borders, a Canadian organization working to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse.
A culture of reverence toward teachers in some of the countries where child sexual exploitation is common adds to the fears that teachers avoid close scrutiny.
And teaching, of course, puts teachers close to children.
"It's a dirty secret, if you will, that these individuals will try and go in under that sort of cover to have ready access to children," said Jamie McIntosh, executive director of International Justice Mission Canada, an organization that helps rescue children from exploitation abroad.
A number of South Asian and Central American countries in need of teachers are also known for child-sex tourism.
"Pedophiles are drawn to places where they think they can hide. They are attracted to environments where they think they can get away with it," Mr. McIntosh said.
Child-sex-crime investigators are aware of the attractiveness that an ESL job in Asia might hold for a pedophile.
"We do hear stories, complaints if you will, that some of these people have opportunity to work abroad," said Detective-Sergeant Kim Scanlan, head of the Toronto Police sex-crimes unit.
"Sometimes pedophiles set themselves up in these types of positions, specifically in countries that are vulnerable - anything that puts a pedophile closer to their interest, their fantasy to be with children," she said.
The RCMP's national child exploitation co-ordination centre is studying anecdotal reports of deviant overseas ESL teachers to see if there are valid statistics to back up concern of it being an emerging trend, said Staff Sergeant Rick Greenwood, the centre's operations manager.
As in any activity anywhere that puts adults close to children, accreditation and background checks are key, he said.
"Some agencies are very good and some less so," Staff Sgt. Greenwood said.
ESL teachers, meanwhile, worry the attention to the case makes them all look dirty.
"I fear that everyone who hears I teach English in Asia will suddenly think I'm there to diddle the kids. It makes me sick, physically sick," said one veteran teacher who asked that his name not be published.
Members of online chat groups for ESL teachers, including one frequented by Mr. Neil before he was named as a pedophile suspect, have also expressed concern.
"When you think about the tireless volunteers who give their time, it must be very hard for them - most of them are there for the right reasons," Det.-Sgt. Scanlan said.
Meanwhile, police are wondering where Mr. Neil is.
With all of the media reports internationally - receiving an unusual amount of attention in Thailand, for instance - and so many pictures of him being printed and broadcast, investigators are surprised he is still at large, leading to suggestions he may have killed himself because of the publicity.
Others suggest he may have headed to Thailand to visit one of the private cosmetic surgery clinics found in Bangkok.
"I thought he would have been found by now," said Staff Sgt. Greenwood.