dramatic. With this word Holger Münch, President of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), describes the increase in cases of sexual abuse of children and young people in Germany in the past year. The word “dramatic” is appropriate. In 2021 there were 15,507 cases, 6.3 percent more than in 2020.

Even more extreme was the increase in depictions of abuse – i.e. the distribution, acquisition, possession or production of so-called child pornography. These skyrocketed by 108.8 percent to more than 39,000 cases. To put it another way: in Germany, an average of 42 children and young people were victims of sexualised violence every day last year.

Münch presented these figures on Monday when he presented the police crime statistics (PKS) 2021. Sitting next to him is Kerstin Claus, the new independent commissioner for child sexual abuse issues. For them, these numbers are “terrifying, but also expected to be high”. Only crimes recorded by the police and the judiciary are documented.

And these institutions got more work because the sensitivity to the issue of child abuse has increased and with it the number of criminal charges. But also because the police are working with significantly improved investigative methods.

For Münch it is already clear: “We will also have an increase in cases in 2022 because only those cases that have been treated as criminal offenses are included in the statistics. But that means that many acts happened a year earlier. We’re still a long way from reaching the top.”

Especially since many crimes are not even known because they take place in the so-called dark field. Most cases of sexual abuse still happen in the family or at least in the social environment of a child or young person. However, the extreme increase in depictions of abuse must be differentiated. In many cases, says Münch, it was about pictures that young people had “carelessly” sent to each other. They did not develop any criminal energy, but underestimated the criminal significance of their actions.

That is why Kerstin Claus calls for more media skills from young people. They should be made aware of what is prohibited under criminal law, “without criminalizing them”. The actual target group of the investigators remains the same: “The focus is on the adults.”

And the German investigators are increasingly tracking them down with help from the USA. The BKA works closely with a US institution that investigates child abuse and forwards information relating to Germany to the German police officers. The BKA received 78,600 tips last year, of which 62,300 were criminally relevant. A year earlier there were only 56,000 tips, 30,000 of which were criminally relevant.

However, the flood of data also has negative sides. “It required resources that cannot be made available,” explains Münch. The BKA has doubled the number of officials who deal with child sexual abuse. “But the actual work continues on site, at the police stations in the countries.” And there, the staff is often enough scarce. However, North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, is making enormous efforts to combat abuse in response to massive incidents in the state. “More staff also brings substantial success, see North Rhine-Westphalia,” emphasizes Kerstin Claus.

But BKA boss Münch also admits: “We could be even better.” He is alluding to data retention, the current regulation of which investigators are having problems with. Currently, data should be stored for a maximum of seven days, which is too short a period for Münch. “Last year we had 2100 criminally relevant tips for which we only had an IP address as an investigative approach,” says the BKA President.

“But because of data retention, we had no chance of identifying the people concerned.” A total of 19,200 proceedings ultimately had to be discontinued in 2021 because, among other things, the regulation of data retention would have made further prosecution of the perpetrators impossible.

Münch says he “understands the trade-off between data protection and child protection, but when the gaps in child protection are too big, you have to talk about data protection.” Ten days of retention would be useful, but six months would make much more sense. “But seven days are definitely not enough.”

Kerstin Claus is also dissatisfied with the regulation and the discussion about data retention. Data protection and child protection should not be played off against each other, she emphasized, “but the voice of child protection was somewhat lost in the debate”.

It became much clearer on another topic. For the Independent Commissioner for Questions of Child Sexual Abuse, it is a “scandal that there is still no data on unreported cases of abuse”. So it is impossible to assess whether the documented number of cases of abuse has increased because there are actually more acts or only more are reported.

She is again calling for the establishment of a research center to investigate these questions. Experts should work out answers on the subject of dark fields by means of targeted questioning of adolescents and young people between the ages of 16 and 29 about their experiences.

According to Claus, this center should be permanently financed through the federal budget. After start-up financing of 425,000 euros next year, she estimated the costs at 800,000 euros a year.

At least there was money for a vastly improved search method. “It’s hard to believe,” said Münch, “but five years ago we were still driving hard drives with data across the country because there was no way to safely forward this data in encrypted form.” The problem has since been resolved.