THE PUBLIC OUTRAGE and calls for reviving anti-smut police squads stand in contrast to the generally tolerant public attitude toward personal vice in the Netherlands.
AMSTERDAM - The discovery of a Netherlands-based ring that trafficked in the most shocking kinds of child - even infant - pornography on the Internet has unleashed a lurid scandal, which gained momentum with the firing of a Justice Ministry official who allegedly downloaded child porn for personal use.
With ties to Germany, Italy and the United States, the case has brought calls for the revival of anti-porn vice squads and a more aggressive approach to electronic smut.
The public outrage stands in contrast to the generally tolerant attitude toward personal vice in the Netherlands, where prostitution and the use of "soft" drugs such as marijuana are legal.
But the Dutch are not ready to tolerate the pornography discovered on computer drives and diskettes in mid-July, when police raided a cluttered apartment in the sleepy North Sea town of Zandvoort.
The apartment owner, convicted German pedophile Gerrie Ulrich, 49, was shot to death in Pisa, Italy, in June, allegedly by a rival gang member. Dutch authorities are seeking extradition of the slaying suspect, Robert van der Plancken, 24, of Belgium.
This week, the scandal took a startling new turn. A top employee of the Justice Ministry, which is leading the investigation, was ousted for downloading child pornography from his office computer for personal use.
The case echoes the uproar in Belgium over apparent police ineptitude that let a serial child rapist and killer, Marc Dutroux, prey on young girls for years, and even escape briefly in April.
Now the Dutch, many of whom were openly smug about their neighbors' troubles, are trying to come to terms with the hard-core child porn being traded in their country, even at the highest levels of law and order.
"The Internet is a place where anything can happen, and a lot of people like this stuff," said Christine Karman, a mother of two who runs an Amsterdam child-pornography hotline. "I'm afraid this is just the tip of the iceberg.
"Sometimes what you see makes you sick. Sometimes I can't sleep at night," she said yesterday.
Authorities say little if any of the material seized in Zandvoort was actually produced in the Netherlands. They think much of it came from Central and Eastern Europe and originally was posted on the World Wide Web in the United States.
Although possession of child pornography carries a maximum sentence of six years' imprisonment in the Netherlands, traffickers are difficult to catch. Pedophiles who once posted illicit images openly on World Wide Web home pages now shelter in Internet chat rooms, hiding behind fake names and bogus e-mail addresses.
That has led to calls for stricter controls on Internet providers.
This week, the leader of the Christian Democrat party called for the reinstatement of vice squads that up until a few years ago were deployed to make sure pornography didn't go too far.
"You have to catch them in the act, and only police can do that," said Karman, a software engineer. "But the police, at least here, don't have the knowledge to fight child pornography on the Internet."
"This is giving the impression that the Internet is loaded with child pornography," said Fred Eisner, chairman of the Dutch Association of Internet Providers. "That really isn't the case. You have to consciously hunt it down."