The European Commission has approved a proposal to update the criminal law rules on the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children.

Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime that has escalated significantly in recent years. These revised rules broaden the definitions of the offenses and introduce tougher penalties and more specific requirements for prevention and victim assistance. They complement the proposal for a regulation tabled by the Commission in 2022 — which establishes obligations for online companies to identify, report and remove child sexual abuse material from their services.

According to the Commission, the threat of abuse is real and has increased across the EU. In 2022 alone there were 1.5 million reports of child sexual abuse in the EU. One in five children suffers some form of sexual violence, both inside and outside offline. The internet has greatly exacerbated the spread of child sexual abuse by allowing perpetrators to meet online and instantly exchange videos and photos of serious sexual abuse against children — often very young children.

The current EU rules in this area were agreed in 2011. They need to be adapted to meet the latest developments and strengthen prevention and victim protection. Key aspects of the proposal include, among others, the following:

• Broadening the definition of criminal offenses related to child sexual abuse in all Member States: these new offenses include the live broadcasting of child sexual abuse and the possession and exchange of pedophile manuals. The new rules also update the definitions of the crime to include child sexual abuse material in deep fakes or material produced by AI.

• Strengthening prosecution, prevention and support: The proposal will set a longer period in which victims can report sexual abuse they have suffered and take legal action against the perpetrator. The new rules will also give victims the right to financial compensation to deal with the long-term damage caused by child sexual abuse. In addition, Member States are required to establish a coordination mechanism for the optimal use of available programs for prevention and assistance to victims.

• Strengthening prevention: Member States are also called upon to step up investment in awareness raising, especially regarding online risks, to ensure that the internet is safer and better for children and young people. In addition, the new requirements will ensure that recruiters for activities involving close contact with children and organizations involved in combating child sexual abuse will have to ask for applicants’ criminal records.

• It will also make it mandatory for at least professionals who work in close contact with children to report an offense to address a major challenge in efforts to stop child sexual abuse.

Commission Vice-President for Promoting the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “Our work to build an EU Security Union includes cracking down on the heinous crime of child sexual abuse. We close the loopholes that allow criminals to commit their crimes – both online and offline. With a new set of criminal laws, we will make it easier to prosecute offenders, facilitate investigations and provide better support for victims. We are also placing a new emphasis on prevention to ensure that we not only address incidents of exploitation, but proactively eliminate the conditions that facilitate exploitation in the first place.”

For her part, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said: “Rapidly evolving technologies are creating new possibilities for child sexual abuse online and are raising challenges for law enforcement authorities to investigate this extremely serious and large-scale crime. Having a strong criminal law is essential and today we are taking a key step to ensure we have effective legal tools to save children and bring perpetrators to justice. We are delivering on the commitments we have made in the framework of the EU strategy to fight child sexual abuse more effectively presented in July 2020.”

It is now up to the European Parliament and the Council to approve the proposal. Once issued, the new directive will amend the current directive and will enter into force 20 days after its publication in the Official Journal of the European Union.