A PASSPORT office employee who took home photographs of children as young as six from his workplace has avoided an immediate prison sentence

James Close, who is 37 on Sunday, admitted taking home 30 photographs, featuring girls aged between six and 16, which were submitted to the office in Durham in passport applications by their parents.

They came to light when police visited his home in Shildon, last January, and removed three computer devices which on later examination were found to contain 1,278 indecent images of children, 107 in the most serious category, plus14 prohibited images and 101 classed as extreme pornography, featuring scenes of bestiality.

But, Durham Crown Court heard in a locked metal drawer the 30 images taken from the Passport Office were recovered.

The court was told Close, a trusted worker in the office’s print room for 14 years, claimed he found them discarded at work and placed them in his pocket intending to destroy them, but forgot and ended up taking them home.

Shaun Dryden, prosecuting, said they should have been placed in a safe disposal container at work.

Close initially claimed he had no sexual interest in children, but in later interviews with police, after the contents of his computer became known, he made some admissions and in a later probation interview conceded he did have a sexual interest in children.

But Mr Dryden said, despite the understandable concerns of the parents’ whose children featured in the stolen passport applications photos, none were used for anything other than Close to look at and were not passed on to anyone on the internet.

The court heard a victim statement from the mother of a 12-year-old whose photo was stolen by Close.

She spoke of the anxiety it had caused, and how there had been a, “massive organisational failing” at the Government-run agency to allow it to happen.

“The documents were sent to a Government body who were tasked with keeping our documents safe.

“The fact that the employee was able to steal data more than once I feel shows a massive organisational failure.

“We entrust precious data every day to various organisations who have procedures in place to prevent this sort of situation from arising.

“This incident shows that this is not the case and I now have issues and anxiety that there is nothing in place to protect data we send in the future.”

Judge Jonathan Carroll spoke to the mother in the witness box to reassure her the police had found no evidence that Close had manipulated the photos to make depraved images from them, distributed them or done anything else with them.

The court heard Close, who still lives with his parents in Central Parade, was socially isolated, sexually naive and suffers from chronic low self-esteem.

Nigel Soppitt, mitigating, said Close, who has no previous convictions, has begun taking steps to address his behaviour, seeking help from recognised agencies, and is considered to pose a low-risk of further offending.

Judge Jonathan Carroll spoke to the mother in the witness box to reassure her the police had found no evidence that Close had manipulated the photos to make depraved images from them, distributed them or done anything else with them.

Mr Soppitt, said the defendant was socially inadequate, had never had an adult relationship, had mental and physiological issues and may have undiagnosed autism.

Explaining why he took the photos, Mr Soppitt said: “They were attractive to him, he says no more than that.”

Close admitted theft of the photos, possession of prohibited images of children and extreme pornography, plus three counts of making indecent images of children.

Judge Carroll sentenced Close to 12 months in prison, suspended for two years, with a six-month 8pm to 8am electronically-monitored home curfew and 30 days rehabilitation in one-to-one sex offender sessions with the Probation Service.

He must sign the sex offender register and comply with restrictions over his future internet use as part of a Sexual Harm Prevention Order, both for ten years.

The judge said he could not send him to prison for a long enough time to get the treatment inside that he needed.

“This is an extremely troubling, unusual and in many ways a very sad case.

“There’s extremely serious criminal offending relating to children and a deeply troubling abuse of trust by an employee of a state organisation.

“That has caused profound damage to the public trust in that institution, an institution we as a society have to use, and have to have confidence in.

“Your behaviour as is clear (from the mother’s victim statement) and has driven a coach and horses through that public trust.”

After the case an NSPCC spokesperson said: “By accessing images of the most appalling abuse of children, Close has helped fuel an industry which thrives on pain and misery.

“The NSPCC is calling for more to be done to prevent anyone sourcing and sharing this kind of vile material, and for web providers to do more to remove it from online platforms.”

Anyone with concerns about the safety of a child or child abuse images can ring the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 for support and advice. Children can contact Childline on 0800 1111 or via childline.org.uk.