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Safeguarding the Children

The world's attention is turning to the critical work of protecting its children from exploitation. In Stockholm, delegates from 122 countries are gathering this week for a first-of-its-kind meeting. Their goal is to raise awareness of the growing problem of child prostitution, trafficking, and pornography - and to seek needed solutions.

The issue was given a sense of urgency by the rescue in Belgium of two young girls found locked in the cellar of an unemployed electrician's home. The suspect, Marc Dutroux, was sent to prison for 13 years in 1989 for abducting and raping five girls, but was released three years later. Police suspect he may have profited from selling children and pornography.

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In Europe, the case has fueled a debate over how to punish or control known sex offenders. The issue has received wide attention in the United States, where President Clinton recently announced the formation of a national registry of sex offenders.

Legal questions, such as possible violations of double jeopardy, swirl around this approach. But proponents have a compelling argument: A recent US Justice Department study found that offenders who victimized children were more than twice as likely to have multiple victims as offenders committing crimes against adults.

In Belgium, an appalling crime has impelled people to seek solutions. Many are calling for increased prison terms and stricter parole requirements. A registry of sex offenders, similar to the one proposed for the US, might work on a Europe-wide basis.

The conference in Stockholm will help take the search for answers beyond the cases of individual sex offenders to prostitution "industries" that ensnare countless children throughout the world. Child advocates, officials, churches, civic-minded businesses, and the press - including this newspaper and its allied publications - are united behind this effort. Their common commitment: safeguarding the children.

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