This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
On the floor behind Benjamin C. Wenzel's desk lie stacks of folders. Most of them contain documents related to the crimes perpetrated by his clients – he specialises in defending owners of child pornography.
According to estimates from the United Nations and the FBI, every second, 750,000 people look at child pornography on the internet. Many of these offenders go unnoticed and unpenalised. That was exemplified last summer by Operation Daylight, a Europe-wide crackdown on consumers of child pornography, due to which 611 cases were made on suspicion of offences, 207 of these were investigated but only 75 arrests were made.
Benjamin C. Wenzel is 39 and lives in the South of Berlin. He has been defending child pornography offenders in court for the last seven years..
VICE: What kind of people look at child pornography?
Benjamin C. Wenzel: You wouldn't be able to point them out if you saw them on the street. You can't come up with a specific profile. People with paedophile tendencies come from completely different social and educational backgrounds, they can be of any age or have any job. Those tendencies are there and don't just disappear. They have to learn to live with them.
How often do you have to deal with people like that?
Generally, I have four to five clients a month. I get requests from all over Germany.
When you meet them, how do you treat them?
People come to me for help, and I have a normal client-lawyer relationship with them. Most are still in shock – the police usually storm their homes at about 6AM without warning and confiscate devices like computers, hard-drives and USB sticks. They're arrested and their families and neighbours have likely witnessed the raid.
Do you feel sorry for them?
It's clear to me that my clients are put under a lot of extreme stress. The criminal proceedings are stressful, their marriage is put to an extreme test, they lose their jobs. Life as they know it is over, and they're branded a paedophile for ever. I try to support them as my clients, but on a personal level I keep my distance – like I do with all my clients. I keep it professional.
How do you do that? How do you keep your distance?
As a lawyer, your job is to safeguard the legal system. It's not a job like any other. Every defendant has the right to a lawyer and in order for that system to work, I have to block out my personal views and interests. If I wasn't able to do that, I would be in the wrong line of work.
Why do you defend these paedophiles?
I don't only represent paedophiles – they make up maybe 5 to 10 percent of my work as a defence lawyer. Admittedly, the field of child pornography is different to all other criminal law matters. But I think it's possible for me to really have a positive effect on my client. I strongly advise all of the paedophiles I represent to undergo therapy in order to learn to deal with their urges. I think that's one of the most important steps, and they usually follow my advice. I don't advise that in order to reduce their sentence – that therapy is meant to prevent my client from committing any further crimes or hurting other people or children. So I see my work as a valuable contribution to society. So far, none of my clients have re-offended.
What do you do if your client refuses to go to therapy?
At least 90 percent of my clients undergo therapy, but some of them refuse – because they don't see themselves as paedophiles, for example. I have clients who say they are addicted to downloading illegal files off the internet. When that happens, I also try to motivate them to undergo therapy. But you can't force anyone to do something they don't want.
What's the procedure when you take on a client?
The suspect contacts me after the police have raided his house. I get in touch with the police and the prosecutors and request access to the files. Once I have assessed how much incriminating data there is, I can form an idea of what the sentence will be like. Then I have my first conversation with my client, when I will recommend therapy.
When you say you have to look at the incriminating data, does that mean you have to look at child pornography yourself?
I do have to view it, although it's usually enough for me to just to get an overview of the amount of data and the kind of data a client has. Here in Berlin, I don't get the content sent to me, I'm granted access to it at the public prosecution office. There are always other people present.
How does it affect you to see that material?
Child pornography is always awful – behind every picture is a tortured child. Every perpetrator needs to know that. But I have to deal with it professionally. Unfortunately, I constantly see terrible things while at work.
Do you ever get a bad conscience when defending paedophiles?
No, it's my job as their lawyer. If a surgeon couldn't deal with seeing blood, he or she would have made the wrong career choice. I always keep my distance to my client, we don't deal with each other on a private level.
Being a paedophile is seen as one of the worst things to be in our society.
But the law doesn't view owning and distributing child pornography as the most severe offence. Murder, manslaughter, armed robbery – penalties for those crimes are far higher. First time offenders caught owning child pornography often get a suspended sentence, depending on the amount of images. But that's only in the case of owning images, abuse itself is punished differently.
Have you ever defended anyone that produced child pornography?
Yes, and in those cases there's also child abuse or abuse of minors to consider with a sentence.
A client of mine had produced images and videos of his own daughter. For this case, the strategy was to have him confess fully, so his daughter could be spared from having to take part in a court hearing and giving a statement. That was in everyone's best interest. My client regrets what he did.
So he had a sense that what he was doing was wrong?
I do think he knew that what he was doing was wrong, yes. But the abuse went over many years, so he must have suppressed it.
What kind of person was he?
Inconspicuous, a family man.
Did you recommend he go into therapy?
That wasn't how it worked in this case. My client went straight into custody and received a seven-year prison sentence. He's still in prison now. I can't say if he is undergoing therapeutic treatment there – the moment the sentence was passed, our mandate ended.
And you really don't take these kind of cases home with you?
Well, they stay with you, of course.
Do you want to be a father yourself?
Aren't you worried about what would happen to your children?
Everybody has worries and fears. Maybe I go through life a bit less naive than other people. I think that through my work, I might have developed certain senses that set off alarm bells in my mind. I wouldn't let my children take public transport at night on their own – I'd go and pick them up myself instead.
Is there any crime you wouldn't be able to defend?
That's a difficult question and it would really depend on the case. So far, I haven't come across a case I haven't been able to take on. I wouldn't want to deal with someone who murdered a child but I haven't been asked to do that so far.
If at any point you got fed up with being a criminal defence lawyer, what would you do?
Honestly, I think I'd go into real estate. It's very different, but it's a passion of mine.
Previously on VICE: