Via Deutsche Welle

It’s an unremarkable house; two stories, flat roof, well-tended front garden — not far from Cologne. The outward facade of a normal life. “Neighbors described them as a nice, normal family,” recalls police officer Lisa Wagner, who took part in the search of Jörg L.’s house on the morning of 21 October 2019 that brought the facade tumbling down. 

The child pornography films and images that the police found in the 43-year-old’s home led to the biggest investigation into organized child sex abuse in the history of Federal Germany. Jörg L., a cook and hotel manager, stands accused of repeatedly sexually abusing his daughter, who was born in 2017. The prosecution says he filmed and recorded most of the abuse and shared it on chat groups. The abuse allegedly began when the child was less than three months old. 

Read more: Child sex abuse in Germany: Uptick in cases, or more policing?

More than 300 officers involved in the investigation

Police in Cologne formed a special task force. Currently, 130 investigators are still combing through terabytes of video and image files, though there were times when many more officers were involved, who had to watch scenes of extreme sexual violence against children. 

Polizei Köln, BAO Mitarbeiter*innen (Polizei Köln)

Lisa Wagner has been through hours of traumatizing material to try and put an end to abuse

“I think images and videos like these are always going to leave their mark on those who watch them — even experienced investigators,” says police officer Wagner of the “terrible things” she has seen.

Three investigators from the task force have been placed on sick leave because the videos had such a traumatic effect on them. Wagner, herself a mother, says her motivation to plunge back into these depths every day comes from the chance “to identify these perpetrators, get the children out of those families and put an end to this abuse.” 

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Investigators have secured the removal of some 50 children from their abusers’ custody, including a three-month-old baby. The list of suspects identified by investigators now has 87 people on it, says Cologne State Prosecutor Markus Hartmann, head of North-Rhine Westphalia’s cybercrime investigation division since 2016. Its remit covers “cybercrime of outstanding importance.” including the child sex abuse scandal in Bergisch Gladbach.

Enormous web of abuse

Each of these 87 cases has yielded new clues that lead to new suspects. Hartmann told DW that “this is not about individual cases: behind each instance of abuse lies a web of communication structures that, according to our current evaluation, aids, abets and encourages abuse.” 

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Markus Hartmann (ZAC NRW)

Prosecutor Markus Hartmann says behind each instance of abuse lies a web of communication structures

The full scale of the network has yet to become clear. In late June, North Rhine-Westphalia’s Justice Minister Peter Biesenbach said the investigators had found pseudonyms and histories of more than 30,000 potential perpetrators. Biesenbach spoke of a “new dimension of crime” that had made him “sick to the stomach.”

Investigators say there were chat groups with up to 1,800 members. Hartmann explained that “by communicating with each other in chats, the people involved encouraged each other to believe that child sex abuse was a socially accepted sexual preference.”

Hartmann said that there was a “considerable level of warped perception” and that the knowledge that people were committing crimes was tempered by communication with like-minded people. “The people in the groups continually reassure each other that what they are doing is really just normal, to the point that they imagine that they are committing these crimes on a consensual basis with actively involved children.”

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International cooperation

Hartmann says the investigation combined traditional methods with sifting through digital evidence, leading investigators to communication networks throughout the country — and abroad. But there are plenty of obstacles to international cooperation when it comes to combatting crime. Different political and legal systems and other formalities can make it difficult to pursue a common goal.

The overriding priority in the Bergisch Gladbach abuse case is to rescue children from abuse — and time is of the essence. Hartmann says this is reflected in the work of the investigators: “We have had cases in Europe in which we were able to coordinate operations with our respective international partners within hours.”

It is certainly a European problem, too. On 24 July, the European Commission published a new strategy to combat child sexual abuse, citing an assessment by the European Council estimating that one in five children suffer some form of sexual abuse. 

Read more: ‘Elysium’ — where more than 111,000 users traded in child pornography.

The counted and the uncounted

According to police statistics, there were 15,936 cases of sexual violence against minors in 2019, as well as 12,262 child pornography cases. In addition, there were about 3,000 cases of cyber grooming — whereby adults manipulate children on the internet with a view to committing sex crimes. 

The true figure is likely much higher.

Defendants hiding their faces in child abuse case (Imago/onemorepicture)

In January 2019, Germany saw the trial in the ‘Elysium’ darknet child abuse case

Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig has been the German government commissioner for issues surrounding sexual abuse for nearly nine years. He was been warning of the pandemic nature of sex abuse for years and demanded that tackling it be made a national priority. He told DW: “The perpetrators come from all social classes. The problem of sexual violence against children, organized both through analog and digital channels, is a problem for society as the whole.”

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Rörig welcomes the new attention given to the issue by the Bergisch Gladbach revelations and other cases in Germany. But he regrets that the debate, in his opinion, “sadly concentrates too closely on the sentencing, on the question of stiffer punishment. The threat of tougher punishment alone will not be enough to tackle the gigantic phenomenon of sexual abuse of children and sexual violence on the internet. It is important that investigators be given more effective tools to increase the chances that perpetrators be discovered.” 

Step by step

For Cologne prosecutor Hartmann, every identified culprit is a success, “because it also helps to identify a victim and provide help.”

Help came late for Jörg L.’s daughter. In total, state prosecutors have charged Jörg L. with 79 crimes. He allegedly committed some of the crimes jointly with a chat partner from Kamp-Lintfort, a former Bundeswehr soldier, and to have brought his daughter and step-son to meetings for pre-arranged abuse.

In late May, the 27-year-old Kamp-Lintfort was sentenced to ten years in prison for severe sexual abuse. Abuse commissioner Rörig says the perpetrators “have completely lost their moral compass and totally lost sight of what we would normally regard as basic human principles. So, in addition to the sentences they must receive, they need therapy and help, too.”

Jörg L. faces up to 15 years in prison. 

Editor’s note: DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.