There is a lot of suffering behind depictions of sexual abuse of children and young people. The police are recording more and more crimes – and the suspects are by no means always adults.

Last year, the police in Germany recorded significantly more depictions of child abuse than in 2020.

More than 39,000 cases became known to the authorities in 2021, according to a special evaluation of the police crime statistics, which was presented in Berlin on Monday. This corresponds to an increase of 108.8 percent in the cases of dissemination, acquisition, possession and production of images of sexual violence against children and young people.

The known cases of child sexual abuse increased by 6.3 percent to over 15,500 last year.

What the statistics show – and what not

Police crime statistics only cover cases that come to the attention of the police, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. The so-called dark field is likely to be huge, especially since the perpetrators often come from the child’s environment. According to estimates, one to two students per class are affected by sexual violence.

Crimes are not counted until the police have completed their investigation. According to the President of the Federal Criminal Police Office, Holger Münch, around a quarter of the cases recorded for the past year were already committed in 2020 or even later. And as always, the more actively the police search for perpetrators, the more they find.

“It’s a scandal that we still don’t have these numbers on unreported cases,” said Kerstin Claus, the federal government’s independent commissioner for child sexual abuse issues. This means that investigation successes always trigger a new shock, which leads to “waves of attention”. Instead, what is needed is “persistent continuity” and “a systematic and scientifically sound overall picture”. She called for the establishment of a dedicated research center to collect such data.

young people as perpetrators

The largest group of perpetrators who sexually abuse children and young people are adult men. However, when it comes to possession, procurement or distribution of child pornography, the proportion of underage suspects is considerable – it is around 40 percent. Since the law was tightened last year, all of these offenses have been considered crimes with a minimum sentence of one year in prison. “It’s a real issue now,” said Münch. How to deal with it must be discussed again in the circle of interior ministers. On the one hand, because young people who pass on such content with their smartphones are not “classic criminals” – on the other hand, because the pursuit by the police ties up too many resources.

Claus said children and young people must learn that dealing with depictions of abuse can be punishable. “That’s why it’s important that there are clearly defined boundaries and that it actually becomes visible in schools: Hey, here’s something in a class chat that doesn’t work, and that’s why the police are there. And that’s why all cell phones are collected first.” It’s all about enlightenment.

A corona effect?

The number of cases of sexualized violence against children has increased in the past two years. “A direct connection with the pandemic cannot be ruled out, but it cannot be directly derived from the data,” said BKA boss Münch. Even if the Corona requirements in 2021 were milder than the year before, people sometimes stayed at home in a small space together with other family members for a long time. If there is a tendency to violence, this can increase it – while at the same time social contacts decrease and thus opportunities for those affected to draw attention to their situation.

The Limits of Investigators

The reintroduction of data retention has long been high on Münch’s wish list. Providers are legally obliged to back up users’ telephone and Internet connection data so that investigators can access them later. The investigators could not have followed 2,100 criminally relevant tips to the end last year because the IP addresses, with which a computer can be identified, were no longer stored. Despite clear indications, the investigations in 19,150 cases had to be stopped in the past five years.

Data retention has been on hold in Germany since 2017 due to an ongoing legal dispute. The traffic light coalition wants providers to store data in the so-called quick freeze procedure in the event of initial suspicion for a certain period of time.