Paul Caffrey / U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
A Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agent scans a seized computer. Two hundred and fifty-five child predators were arrested and 61 victims of child sexual exploitation identified during a five-week operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) HSI and Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces across the United States and its territories.
Law enforcement officials announced Monday that a recent five-week sweep snared more than 250 suspected child predators, including nine teachers and three clergymen.
Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton said that 255 child predators were arrested and 61 child victims were rescued in so-called "Operation iGuardian," which targeted online sexual abusers as well as those who possess, produce or trade child pornography.
Morton said that the international investigation, which ran from May 28 to June 30, revealed that online sexual abuse is pervasive and growing.
"Protecting our youth in the digital age requires all of us to be on the lookout for child predators abusing and extorting victims online," Morton said, according to an ICE news release. "Children and parents need to understand that not everyone online is who they say they are."
He said that investigators have identified a "disturbing trend" known as "sextortion," in which predators essentially blackmail underage children into sending them "increasingly graphic images and videos."
"Child abusers prowl social media looking for opportunities to force young people into sexual exploitation through guile, deceit, and extortion," he said. "We want children to know that it's wrong for any adult to solicit or pressure them for sex and that the law is on their side."
Morton said that despite the growth of sexual abuse online, officials cannot "arrest our way out of this problem" due to the sheer scope of online communications and the massive number of potential sexual abusers.
The majority of the rescued child victims were girls, Morton said.
Twenty-two of the victims were 9 years old or younger -- including four under the age of 3. The remaining 39 children were between the ages of 10 and 17, according to the ICE news release.
Of those arrested, 20 people were charged with online sexual enticement of a minor, with the remaining 235 people charged with child pornography production, possession or distribution of child pornography, traveling with the intent to have sex with a minor, or other offenses, including rape, according to the ICE release.
Only four of the suspected predators nabbed in the investigation were women, ICE officials said.
Advocates applauded the results of the investigation.
"We are very thankful for the priority that Director Morton and ICE have made in protecting our country's most vulnerable victims," said John Ryan, CEO of The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "The sad truth is, there are many more child victims of sexual exploitation out there who have not yet been rescued and are still suffering."
"We know that there's more work to be done so that all child victims receive the help they deserve," he said during the Monday announcement.
Investigators have arrested 1,674 people in similar investigations this fiscal year alone, ICE officials said.