For Peter Yeomans, a lanky, earnest detective in this suburb of Sydney, Australia's law against child sex tourism is a fine tool of law enforcement. "Excellent," he says in a satisfied voice, arching an eyebrow and smiling quickly.
Last August, Mr. Yeomans investigated Anthony Carr, an unemployed, middle-aged man who had been found touching a two-year-old girl in a department store. When police searched Mr. Carr's home, they discovered videotapes, notes on the best times to visit particular children in the community, even a scholarly work on child sexuality.
The videotapes were the key: Some of the footage depicted Carr molesting children. The most incriminating scene - involving Carr and a five-year-old girl in a hotel room in the Philippines - enabled the prosecution to use the sex-tourism statute, which allows Australian courts to punish citizens for sexually abusing children under 16, even if the act takes place overseas.
Yeomans learned that Carr made regular trips to the Philippines and Thailand. Carr also told Yeomans that he paid the uncle of the Philippine child either A$40 or A$60 ($32 or $48) for the girl - he couldn't remember for sure.
This April, a judge sentenced Carr to nine years in prison for assaulting the Philippine girl and several Australian children. Without the sex-tourism law, what was recorded in the hotel room would have been unusable in court. And Carr "would have gotten a lot less of a sentence," Yeomans asserts.
Perhaps more than any other country, Australia is trying hard to stop its citizens from sexually abusing children abroad. Other countries have adopted similar statutes, but the Australian version is arguably the most far-reaching. It is also the most often used: Since the Carr matter, prosecutors in different parts of the country have filed three more cases, including one against a senior Australian diplomat.
The sex-tourism law is by no means a singular response - it is part of a widespread public examination of child sex abuse in Australia:
* Numerous allegations have been made about the sexual exploitation of children by religious figures, particularly some within the Roman Catholic church. This summer an Australian Catholic order, the Christian Brothers, negotiated a $2.7 million settlement with more than 200 people who alleged they were sexually abused during their time in child-care facilities run by the order.
* Concern has been rising for years about alleged "pedophile networks" operating within state governments in Australia. A Royal Commission now investigating police corruption in the state of New South Wales has emphasized how officials chose to overlook crimes involving the sexual abuse of children. A separate inquiry is under way in Australia's prestigious foreign service in order to determine whether, for instance, any of the country's diplomats have sexually exploited children during their overseas postings.
* Survivors of child sexual abuse have told their stories through the media and at least two novelists have written about pedophilia in high places, raising popular awareness of the issue.
* The Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales state government are discussing separate plans to create databases of child sex abusers. The police list would be used to warn foreign governments of the arrival of certain Australians and the latter would be used to screen applicants seeking to work in schools or with children. Australian police also have been aggressive in investigating and arresting those who use computers to exchange child pornography and other information on child sexual exploitation.
All of this is not occurring without controversy. Many Australians see the official investigations and the popular discussions of child sexual exploitation as a healthy purging of long-ignored abuses, but some detect an air of inquisition. Perusing some of what the Australian media have had to say about child sex abuse in recent years underscores this concern: It seems that pedophiles are to Australians in the 1990s what Communists were to Americans in the 1950s. Even the country's strait-laced newspapers of record refer to "perverts" in headlines and "rampant pedophiles" in stories.
"It's an exercise in zealotry," says David Leary, a Sydney social worker who runs a drop-in center for teenagers, referring to the New South Wales Royal Commission. Mr. Leary says he was given less than 24 hours notice to appear before a secret session of the commission and threatened with imprisonment if he did not name a 16-year-old client, who had allegedly been sexually exploited by a judge and a prominent lawyer.
Leary, arguing his emotionally troubled client could not withstand interrogation by the commission's investigators, ultimately was able to withhold the name without being penalized. But the experience did not leave Leary favorably impressed. "I think what they were doing was bullying me," he says.
Some members of Australia's gay community also worry that the Royal Commission is engaged in a "homophobic witch hunt," to use a phrase that has appeared in Sydney's gay press. "They talk about [pedophiles] in the way that people used to talk about homosexuals," says Cath Phillips, a lesbian activist in Sydney. No one defends child sex abuse, Ms. Phillips adds, but the problem "is not as simple as evil predators who work together and who prey on young children."
She worries that the attitudes of the commission and its supporters are overly moralistic and conservative. "The answer to every problem is to go back to the family, but gays and lesbians are refugees from the family in many cases," she says.
The sex-tourism law, although it has been good for Australia's relations with its Asian neighbors, also strikes some people as overzealous, particularly from a legal standpoint. Prosecuting someone at home for a crime in another country's jurisdiction has always made for shaky law, and Gerard Rees, a lawyer in Canberra, the Australian capital, argues that it still does.
Mr. Rees represents John Holloway, a one-time Australian ambassador to the Philippines and Cambodia who was charged this January for engaging in sexual activity in 1994 with a Cambodian boy under 16 years of age. "I find it unusual that Australia has legislated that an Australian can be tried for an offense occurring in a completely different jurisdiction. Does Australian law override local law?" he asks.
Prosecuting cases such as Mr. Holloway's poses logistical challenges. Witnesses must be flown to Australia for court hearings or testify via satellite. The law is vague about who should bear the costs of a defendant traveling to another country and assembling evidence to rebut the government's charge.
Rees and the prosecution have already disagreed over the translation of a videotaped statement made by the boy that Holloway allegedly abused. The defense hired its own interpreter, Rees says, "who looked at the tape and came up with completely different words and phrases."
The diplomat has denied the charges against him. "I think he feels that because he is openly gay he's been victimized," says his lawyer.
But a senior official of the Australian Attorney General's Department says the case is a response to years of rumors about pedophile activity among the country's diplomats. "It finally just reached the point where the government had to do something," the official said on condition of anonymity.
That sentiment - action after a long delay - adequately summarizes what most Australians seem to feel about the country's multifaceted grappling with child sexual abuse and exploitation. Even some of the critics interviewed here maintain ultimately favorable outlooks. Phillips, the lesbian activist, appreciates one of the concepts underlying the Royal Commission - that "ethical behavior is finally beginning to be something which is seen as important."