A former serviceman who had online sex chat with a decoy he believed was a 14-year-old boy has been given two years probation.
William Johnston, 38, made full admissions after being confronted by so-called paedophile hunters in Belfast.
Johnston, who served in the Royal Navy for a decade, will also be subject to the sex offenders register notification requirements for five years.
Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard police were called to the Pilot Street area in December 2017 by a group called Nonce Catchers NI.
They claimed to have caught a man trying to engage in sexual activity with someone who portrayed themselves as a schoolboy.
Following an initial confrontation at a Tesco store in the Cityside Retail Park, the suspect denied wanting to meet anyone and ran off.
A prosecution lawyer said screenshots and messages of a sexual nature were then examined.
In one the decoy stated he was aged 14 and asked if that was ok.
“The male replied ‘Ha, yeah’ and continued to send pictures of his penis,” the prosecutor said.
Johnston, originally from Belfast but now with an address at Hampton Centre in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, then surrendered himself to police.
The court heard he admitted making contact through the gay dating app Grindr.
During the online exchanges he told the decoy he was “so cute” and requested photos as the conversation became more sexual.
Johnston also admitted in police interviews that he had a sexual attraction to teenage males.
He pleaded guilty to attempted sexual communication with a child – although police have no way of knowing the decoy’s actual age.
Michael Tierney, defending, said his client had immediately displayed true remorse for his actions.
“He made a clean breast of it at interview,” the barrister said.
The defendant only realised the decoy was allegedly 14 after they started chatting, according to Mr Tierney.
The court was told Johnston previously served with distinction in the Navy for 10 years.
Counsel added: “There’s been very serious consequences; because of the nature of the people involved in detecting him, they published his name and address and he had to leave Northern Ireland.”
Passing sentence, District Judge Alan White noted Johnston has been assessed as posing a low risk of reoffending.
Ordering him to serve two years probation, Mr White said the managed period of supervision in the community was a better outcome than a prison sentence involving no rehabilitation.