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Judge warns of 'virtual' sex abuse

A senior judge has raised concerns about a rise in "virtual" sexual abuse after the Court of Appeal jailed a 23-year-old student who groomed a teenage girl over the internet while working as a coach at a children's sports camp.

Three appeal judges today said a crown court judge had wrongly given 23-year-old Tony Marsden, of Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, a suspended jail term.

They substituted a sentence of three years and four months following an appeal hearing in London, saying the original term of 16 months suspended for two years was "unduly lenient".

Lord Justice Fulford, the most senior judge on the appeal panel, warned of the increasing frequency of offences involving "virtual abuse" over the internet and added: "We are worried about the appalling consequences of this kind of behaviour."

Prosecutors asked the appeal court to re-examine the case after Government legal advisers said they thought the original sentence lenient.

Appeal judges were told Marsden had admitted causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity and was sentenced by Judge Simon Hickey at Newcastle upon Tyne Crown Court in June.

They heard that Marsden, who was studying for a degree in Primary School Education and Physical Education at Cumbria University in Lancaster, worked as a coach at the summer camp that the girl attended in 2013.

Prosecutors said the girl, who was in her early teens, had contacted Marsden via Facebook.

They said the pair began to exchange messages and Marsden's became "sexually explicit".

Marsden asked for the youngster's telephone number, asked her to hug him, asked to meet her and expressed his "love" for her, they said.

He also described in "graphic detail" the kind of sexual activity he wanted the two of them to engage in.

Police launched an investigation after the girl's mother noticed Marsden's messages on her daughter's Facebook account.

Marsden, who had no previous convictions, admitted sending messages but said he had been "supportive" of the girl and not derived "sexual gratification" from them.

He also said he had been lonely and had suffered from depression.

Lord Justice Fulford said there had been a "real element of grooming" and an abuse of trust - and he said Judge Hickey's "sentencing exercise" was flawed.

He said the girl, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, told how life had "been changed". She said she had trusted Marsden because he was "my teacher".

The judge also said offences like Marsden's tended to undermine public confidence in schemes such as summer camps.

Solicitor General Robert Buckland, who referred the case to the appeal court, said after the hearing: "I asked the court to look again at this sentence as I feel it is important that the criminal justice system recognises the significant impact this behaviour has on the victim.

"Sexual crimes, especially those which breach the trust that exists between a student and mentor, should be punished appropriately. "

Mr Buckland, Conservative MP for South Swindon, added: "Tony Marsden acted in a way that was wholly inappropriate for a summer school coach, committing sexual offences against a young girl in his charge who was entitled to feel safe and I am pleased that the Court of Appeal has today sent him to jail for his conduct."

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