STOCKHOLM — For years," says Chief Inspector James Reynolds of London's Metropolitan Police, "pedophile crime was in the 'too difficult' category - people didn't like to talk about it."
But as a consequence of rising public concern about the commercial sexual abuse of children, police officers in several countries are working harder to enforce laws, cooperate internationally, and share information with private groups working against the problem.
The officers belong to a group set up in 1992 by Interpol, the international organization of police agencies based in Lyon, France. Interpol's "standing working party" on offenses against minors, which now includes 30 countries, encourages members to share expertise and increase international cooperation in the investigation of child sex crimes.
The advent of the Internet, which has given child pornographers an anonymous and efficient means to transmit material across borders, has encouraged investigators to consult each other more. The networking is showing some results.
In August, police in Thailand arrested four men on charges of smuggling dozens of young women to Japan as part of a sex ring. The Thai police learned about the operation from American investigators, according to Terry Lord, a US Justice Department prosecutor who works on child-exploitation cases. The case was "a real good example of the kind of international cooperation we're looking for," he says.
Some countries have also set up specialized units to work on child sex crime. The 16 investigators who work under Scotland Yard's Mr. Reynolds, for example, used to be known as the Obscene Publications Branch. In April 1995 they were renamed the Pedophilia Unit.
"We gather intelligence, and we try to target pedophiles," says Reynolds, "rather than waiting for the offenses to take place." Britain also maintains a database on pedophiles, although a government report released in August says more resources are needed to keep the system up-to-date.
Sweden two years ago established a nationwide unit that collects information on those involved in crimes against children, a step that many nations have taken or are considering.
Police officers have long investigated child sex crimes, but there is new emphasis on training investigators in how to handle young victims. "Prosecutors and law enforcement and other parts of the criminal-justice system need to recognize that children in these situations are not perpetrators and criminals - they are victims," says Laurie Robinson, an assistant attorney general in the US.
Police are also increasingly willing to team up with activist groups who work against child sexual exploitation. "There is something of a difference in the way law enforcement looks at these events and the way that nongovernmental organizations do," says Dan Wright, a US Federal Bureau of Investigation agent. Nonetheless, he adds, "we want to cement that relationship."
A recent conference on child sexual exploitation in Stockholm prompted governments to propose additional law-enforcement measures that could be taken against child sex offenders, particularly those operating internationally. Officials from Belgium, reacting to a recent child sex scandal in their country, said the government would instruct its embassies to gather information on Belgians involved in the sexual exploitation of children abroad.
Belgium and 11 other countries now have statutes that allow the prosecution of citizens for sex crimes against children in other countries, and this may be the first time that a government has told its diplomats to take such an active role.
At the same time, police in many countries have a long way to go. "When the police [in Thailand] stop profiting from prostitution, then maybe something good will happen," says a member of a private Thai organization who spoke on condition of anonymity.
And inadequately trained police sometimes add to the problems of sexually exploited children. Alicia, a 15-year-old homeless Filipina who regularly prostitutes herself, said in a recent interview in Manila that she feared the police.
In regular sweeps of an area of the Philippine capital where homeless children sleep, she says, police extort money from street kids who do not want to be arrested. Those who are detained, she adds, are sometimes raped, beaten, or forced to clean the police station.