Germany is investigating about 30,000 suspects as part of a widening probe into a paedophile network in the western Bergisch Gladbach region, according to authorities.
The cybercrime unit in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is “investigating 30,000 unknown suspects” in the case, the justice ministry for Germany’s most populous state said on Monday.
“We want to drag perpetrators and supporters of child abuse out of the anonymity of the internet,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Those being investigated are suspected of sharing “child and youth pornographic content” including “fictitious and/or real acts of abuse” in anonymous online discussion forums and chat groups, the cybercrime unit ZAC NRW said in a statement.
“I did not expect, not even remotely, the extent of child abuse on the internet,” North Rhine-Westphalia’s Justice Minister Peter Beisenbach told reporters.
What the investigation team had uncovered was “deeply disturbing”, he said. “We must recognise that child abuse on the internet is more widespread than we had previously thought.”
The abuse investigations began last October with the arrest of a suspected perpetrator in Bergisch Gladbach, near Cologne.
To date, about 70 suspects have been identified throughout Germany.
In May, the first offender – a 27-year-old soldier – was sentenced to 10 years in prison and placed in a psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.
Germany has had several serious cases of child sex abuse during the past 18 months.
In early June, 11 people were arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing children and filming their actions after videos and photos were seized from the cellar of a 27-year-old man from the western city of Muenster, also in North Rhine-Westphalia state.
Investigators said they had identified at least three victims, aged five, 10 and 12.
In an earlier scandal in Luegde, 125km (80 miles) from Muenster, several men abused children several hundred times at a campsite over a period of several years.