A “PREDATORY” child rapist who took girls to a graveyard to sexually abuse them has been jailed for more than 18 years.

John Cooper targeted four girls aged between 12 and 13 in a decade, first abusing a girl in the mid-2000s.

She was left “terrified and unsure” as a result of the offences, and continues to struggle in her adult relationships, it was said.

Adam Feest, prosecuting, said the assaults against the first victim involved an “element of grooming”. Around 10 years later, Cooper, who is now 57, began abusing three more girls. He was arrested when one spoke to a counsellor.

Police investigating the case discovered a series of indecent images of one of the victims on his mobile phone.The child told officers he had offered her cigarettes in exchange for the nude photographs of her. He then sat her on his lap and touched her.

Mr Feest said Cooper told the victim after the offences, which were committed in the graveyard, that “something bad would happen” if she told anyone. Another of the girls was raped in the same graveyard. It was heard that Cooper had assaulted her before she fought him off and tried to run away. However, he grabbed her, pushed her to the ground and forced himself on her. The victim later told police she believes she is to blame for the attacks on other victims as she was too frightened to speak up.

Mr Feest told the court that the teenager said: “I’m sorry. It’s my fault - I should have told someone.”

The fourth victim was abused over the course of several months by Cooper. who kissed and sexually touched her on a number of occasions.

The defendant admitted four counts of taking indecent photographs of a child, three counts of sexually assaulting a child under 13, two counts of assault by penetration, six counts of sexual assault and four of sexual activity with a child.

He denied rape and inciting a child to engage in sexual activity, but was convicted following a trial at Bournemouth Crown Court.

Mitigating, David Reid said: “[Cooper] is undoubtedly going to be vulnerable in custody.”

Judge Peter Crabtree OBE called the use of the graveyard an “aggravating feature”.

“You express no remorse for your appalling behaviour and show no real understanding of its impact,” he said.

The defendant poses particular risks to girls aged 12-16, it was said.

Cooper, of Hurst Road in Ringwood, was sentenced to 18 years and nine months in prison. He was also made the subject of an indefinite Sexual Harm Prevention Order. , and will also have to comply with notification requirements until further order is made.

Speaking after the case, Detective Constable Richard Chegwidden of Hampshire Constabulary said: “This has been a long, complex and detailed investigation.

“It has been a distressing time for the victims and their families, and they remained incredibly strong throughout.

“With their courage and strength a dangerous offender has been stopped and these brave individuals have prevented others from coming to harm.

“Now that justice has prevailed I hope those involved can now begin to rebuild and continue with their lives.

“We are committed to supporting victims of sexual abuse and bringing those responsible to justice.”