Germany is investigating 30,000 suspects as part of a probe into an online pedophile network, the latest in a series of scandals for child sex abuse scandals that prompted authorities to promise a crackdown.
The probe began in October last year with the arrest of a suspected offender in Bergisch Gladbach, near Cologne.
But investigators digging in the case have created a much larger pedophile network than expected.
“I did not even expect the extent of child abuse on the Internet remotely,” North Rhine-Westphalia Justice Minister Peter Beisenbach told reporters on Monday.
What the investigation team had revealed was “deeply disturbing,” he said.
“We must admit that child abuse on the Internet is more widespread than we previously thought.”
The cyber crime office in North Rhine-Westphalia “is now investigating 30,000 unknown suspects” in the case linked to the city of Bergisch Gladbach, Beisenbach said.
“We want to pull perpetrators and supporters of child abuse from the anonymity of the Internet,” he added.
Those investigated are suspected of sharing “child and youth pornographic content” including “fictitious and / or actual abuse” in anonymous discussion forums and online chat groups, the cyber crime office ZAC NRW said in a statement.
To date, more than 70 suspects have been identified throughout Germany.
In May, the first perpetrator – a 27-year-old soldier – was sentenced to 10 years in prison and placed in a psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.
Germany has been shocked by the discovery of several serious cases of sex abuse over the past 18 months.
In early June, 11 people were arrested on suspicion of child sexual abuse and filmed their actions after filming and footage was seized from the basement of a 27-year-old man from the city of Muenster, also in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Investigators said they had identified at least three victims, aged five, 10 and 12 years.
Officials then said the investigation capacity for child abuse had been increased, which would likely lead to the discovery of more cases.
The case triggered calls from politicians to break down those who use and share child pornography, and demand that it be classified as a crime rather than just a crime.
“Child abuse cannot be punished as a shoplift. It is murder. Not physically but emotionally. Whoever bears children must be punished as a criminal, full stop,” said Nordrhein Westfalia Interior Minister Herbert Reul.
Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht in mid-June admitted that in the future offenders would receive a sentence of at least one year. “Anyone who commits such heinous crimes must know the full force of the law,” she said.
In a previous scandal in Luegde, 125 kilometers from Muenster, several men abused children several hundred times at a campsite for several years.
Prosecutors said more than 40 children fell victim to the men at the “Eichwald” campsite between 1998 and 2018, most of them between three and 14 years then.
About 33 witnesses, including 16 victims and 12 relatives, testified in court during the trial, many of them behind closed doors.
Abuse of child sex was also placed in the limelight when police announced that in May they suspected a German man of murdering missing British girl Madeleine McCann.
The 43-year-old suspect, appointed to Christian B. by German media, has a long criminal past and a history of child sex abuse.