Where is the church in the fight against online abuse of children?

It's happening all over the world, in every time zone, all the time. It's happening as you read this article. The online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) has become an unseen epidemic spanning the globe.

The week before last, two young sisters in the Philippine region of Cebu were rescued by police and International Justice Mission. Their abuse violated what should have been their safest places and relationships – it took place in their own home, at the hands of their own mother.

The youngest was just four years old.

Jeremy Snell/International Justice MissionChildren have been rescued from sexual abuse carried out in their own homes.

Images and livestreams of their sexual abuse were sold online to foreign consumers. This is just one example of online sexual exploitation or 'cybersex trafficking'. Paedophiles and predators anywhere in the world can now search online and wire a secure payment to an adult trafficker. Boys and girls – the youngest just babies –are abused or forced to perform sex acts in front of a webcam. Unlike bars or brothels with a permanent address, cybersex trafficking victims can be moved to and abused in any location with an internet connection and a webcam.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Philippine police and operatives from International Justice Mission (IJM), the abuser of these two girls has been arrested and will face prosecution, and – crucially – the girls themselves are safe.

This is the brutal reality behind the figures released by the National Crime Agency, which estimates that over 80,000 UK citizens pose a threat to children online, and which has seen a 700 per cent rise in referrals of child pornography since 2013.

Last week, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid spoke out about the online abuse of children. Javid's response to the staggering statistics revealed by the NCA was to demand further action from the tech giants who host content on their platforms.

But this cannot simply be an issue for police, tech companies and politicians. Where is the church taking a stand?

The people of God have been sent to bring light to the darkest of places, and it's time for the church to respond to this, the darkest of crimes. Cybersex trafficking exploits the most vulnerable people in our world in the most violating of ways.

This crime will keep spreading until communities start to see consequences – traffickers and those who profit by sexually exploiting children in front of webcams must be held accountable.

This atrocity calls for more than a halt to demand. It requires a complete and total end to the supply.

IJM is working with justice system in the Philippines to bring a light into these places and stop cybersex trafficking for good.

The model used by IJM, working not just to rescue but to tackle slavery at source, prosecute offenders and drive systemic change, has brought about impressive results. In Cebu, IJM worked closely with the Philippine authorities and other local NGOs to reduce the number of children forced into prostitution in sex establishments. In just four years we achieved reductions of 79 per cent in the number of minors in the commercial sex industry.

Cybersex trafficking is a much more insidious and hidden crime, but IJM are also seeing hope in the fight to stop this as well. This year alone IJM have partnered with police to rescue 88 people, the majority of whom were children under 12.

Equally important is the prosecution of perpetrators. Cybersex trafficking only happens because the traffickers think they can get away with it. Director of the IJM Cebu Field Office, Atty John Tanagho, said: 'Over time these operations send the message to traffickers that it's too risky to abuse children. In fact, because the police have intensified their efforts against [cybersex trafficking], more children will be safe from this violent and sick abuse, both now and in the future.'

So what part can the church play in keeping these children safe?

We need to break first our ignorance and then our silence about this issue. It is has gone on too long in the shadows. By speaking out and raising awareness of this crime we refuse to let darkness write the end of the story.

We can pray. Pray for the exposure of the criminals who do this in secret. Pray for the IJM undercover investigators and lawyers who work to rescue children and convict perpetrators. Pray for the rescue and recovery of children – for healing, safety, and new life.

Finally, we can give. Operations to investigate, find, and rescue children – and then to bring their abusers to justice – take dedicated teams of passionate professionals.

To give to IJM's fight against cybersex trafficking, visit www.ijmuk.org/donate 

David Westlake is chief executive of IJM UK.

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