Paedophiles who view indecent images but go no further should not be jailed but rehabilitated, a leading child protection police officer has said.
Police forces “cannot cope” with the “huge” rise in reports, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told the BBC.
Figures show the number of child abuse reports is up by 80% in three years.
His comments came as the national inquiry into child sexual abuse began its full public hearings on Monday.
Chief Constable Bailey, the head of Operation Hydrant, which is investigating multiple allegations of historic sexual abuse across the UK, said he knew his view would cause nervousness and draw headlines.
But he said the numbers of reports of abuse were at “huge proportions” – an NSPCC study in late 2016 used figures which suggested the number of individuals looking at such images could exceed half a million.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about 400 people were arrested by police in conjunction with the National Crime Agency every month, for looking at indecent images.
“There are undoubtedly tens of thousands of men that are seeking to exploit children online with a view to meeting them, with a view to then raping them and performing the most awful sexual abuse upon them,” he said.
“That’s where I believe our focus has got to be. They are the individuals that pose the really significant threat.”
Offenders who viewed online child abuse images should be placed on the sex offenders register, cautioned and managed in the community undergoing rehabilitation, he said.
He added: “Every time viewed, the victim abused again. But we have to be able to manage the totality.”
Not using the court system would “speed things up”.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales (IICSA) started its public hearings on Monday.
The wide-reaching inquiry will look at child abuse claims against local authorities, religious organisations, the armed forces and public and private institutions – as well as people in the public eye.
It began with an examination of allegations made by children in care who were sent abroad.