Two of the defendants, aged 14 and 15, in the case at Minshull Street Crown Court, Manchester, admitted indecent assault and were given 12- month supervision orders. But Judge Peter Lakin, 50, was accused by experts of taking a "huge step back" in the understanding of child sex abuse after he said that their attack on a 13-year old girl amounted to a "game that went too far".
The victim had been tripped up in a school playing field after a game of hide and seek, then held down by one youth while other boys molested her.
When she tried to escape she was tripped up again and molested for a second time. The assaults occurred as she lay screaming for help.
Police were called in after the girl ran home in tears and told her parents. The two boys and another youngster were later arrested, but the third boy was acquitted by a jury. None can be named for legal reasons.
In passing sentence Judge Lakin, who has a son and daughter, said the assault was "not acceptable", and that had the boys been adults they would have gone to prison.
But he told them: "I am not going to send you into custody because of your ages. I put this down to youthful exuberance. I accept it was a game that went too far but I hope you have both learnt your lessons and accept this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated."
The judge added: "Both of you must understand if you don't already understand that in relation to young ladies, you must be caring and considerate, particularly when a form of sexual activity is involved.
"It is not acceptable under any circumstances to trip up a girl and be a party to that girl being indecently assaulted. If you had been adults, you would have gone to prison - that is how seriously the courts take these cases."
The children's charity Kidscape called the judge's "youthful exuberance" comments "inappropriate". Ms Gaby Shenton, the assistant director, said: "There's no way you can equate indecent assault with youthful exuberance. They were guilty of a very serious crime and calling it that and giving light punishments is totally inappropriate.
"It will have a harmful effect on that girl and other people who come forward. It's a very gutsy girl to come forward, make statements, and given evidence in court.
"It will re-awake the trauma of that assault. It is important for her to feel that society cares and takes sexual abuses seriously... There seems to be a much greater understanding amongst the judiciary about the long-term effects of harassment and sexual abuse, but this is a huge step back."
Mr David Toal, prosecuting, told the court that the incident began at 8pm on 25 September last year after the girl, the three boys, and other friends were playing hide and seek in the playing fields of Fairfield Primary School in Droylesden. The two defendants were 13 and 14 at the time.
"The girl wanted to go home and began to walk off with two friends," said Mr Toal. But the older boy came up behind her and tripped her up and pinned her down on the ground.
"Others became involved in indecently assaulting her by fondling her breasts on the outside of her clothing," Mr Toal said. "She was screaming. Her two friend were standing by her. One was crying, the other telling the boys to stop."
The girl was tripped up on a second occasion and held down by the older boy while she was further assaulted. The younger boy later admitted touching her breasts but told police they were "messing about" and initially the girl was "laughing" with them.Reuse content