Published Friday, 13 September 2013
Speaking to UTV, Mr Poots said it is believed that more than one ring of criminals are involved in the alleged abuse.
The group of men are believed to have targeted young vulnerable people, some of whom are in care in the region - but that incidents took place outside these institutions.
Police uncovered the alleged abuse as they began to look back at cases of children going missing from care over the last 18 months.
A team of police officers and social workers are now investigating. They will also receive the support of children's charity Barnardo's.
A PSNI spokesperson said they identified young people who may be at risk and are "seeking to identify those who may have committed crimes against them".
Police said they cannot provide specific details about alleged incidents at this stage, adding the investigation is "extremely complex".
We have identified a group of 22 young people who may be at risk from child sexual exploitation and are seeking to identify those who may have committed crimes against them.
Mr Poots said the alleged abuse was on a scale not previously seen in Northern Ireland.
He compared it to cases in Rochdale and Oxford in England, which had prompted police to be more vigilant of potential risks.
"Young people who are vulnerable should not be exploited and this is very clearly a case of exploitation," he told UTV correspondent Sharon O'Neill.
"Young people under the age of consent are being used for sexual purposes".
He said it is believed a significant amount of men were involved.
"A lot of the men are young men, some of them are as old as 60," Mr Poots explained.
"It is extremely difficult because many of these young people are free to do what they wish but sometimes what they wish to do is not in their best interest," he said.
"Many of them are left in circumstances where predators will prey upon them and actually use that vulnerability to do things which are wholly wrong and repugnant to most people."
A PSNI spokesperson said: "We are working closely with our partner agencies in terms of raising awareness of this issue, identifying any young person who may be at risk and ensuring they are protected.
"We would appeal to anyone with any concerns about a child or young person or anyone who is a victim of child sexual exploitation to contact the police on 0845 600 8000."
DUP Justice Committee Chairman Paul Givan has called a special joint meeting of the Justice and Health Committees on Monday afternoon to discuss the investigation.
"The news that such activity has been taking place is gravely disturbing," the Lagan Valley MLA said.
"The horrors of these crimes leave us only to pray for the victims and work towards ensuring the perpetrators are brought to justice.
"The public will be deeply concerned at this development and need to hear from the relevant authorities as to what has happened.
"I am glad that both the Health and Justice Ministers have agreed to attend the Committee. The joint meeting will also be an opportunity to probe what actions are being taken to investigate and bring to justice those responsible."
© UTV News