THE Catholic Church has been criticised for failing to reinstate a popular parish priest who The Northern Echo can reveal was accused – but never charged – of child sexual abuse.

Parishioners continue to stand by Father Michael Higginbottom after he was suspended from St Augustine's Roman Catholic Church, in Darlington, in December 2004.

An Echo investigation today reveals that the Catholic Church paid out £35,000 to a man who claimed he was sexually assaulted by Fr Higginbottom while the priest was teaching at St Joseph's College, in Upholland, near Wigan, in the late 1970s.

When The Northern Echo put the allegations to Fr Higginbottom, he denied knowing the nature of the claims and said he could not discuss the reasons for his suspension for “legal reasons”.

It is understood that the suspension took place after the former St Joseph’s pupil made a complaint about the alleged abuse to the Archdiocese of Liverpool, which was responsible for the school.

The man later gave a statement repeating the allegations to Lancashire Police.

Detective Sergeant Stephen Ollerton, from the public protection unit, based at Ormskirk, confirmed that officers investigated the claim and interviewed Fr Higginbottom, although he was never charged with any crime.

The former pupil later launched a civil claim against the Archbishop of Liverpool, the trustees of the Liverpool Roman Catholic Archdiocesan Trust and Bishop Hugh Lindsay.

After initially contesting the case and claiming the time limit for a claim to be made had expired, the Catholic Church – without admitting liability - agreed to a £35,000 out-of-court settlement and the case was dropped.

The Catholic Church has been resolute in its silence since Father Higginbottom was suspended. Officials have repeatedly refused to say why the priest was effectively banished.

However, the legal action sheds new light on the removal of the priest from the Darlington parish where he was highly regarded by his parishioners.

In the particulars of claim documents seen by The Northern Echo, Fr Higginbottom is accused of, on many occasions, fondling the claimant’s penis, rubbing the inside of his leg and groin and requiring him to be naked in front of him.

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, made further allegations of repeated sexual assault by two other priests at the college.

He said the alleged abuse had left him with serious mental health issues that had had a profound impact on his life.

His statement adds: “I suffered for years with mood swings, waking with bed sweats and drinking too much.”

The former pupil’s legal team claimed the defendants were negligent because they failed to heed or act upon information available that there were one or more paedophile priests perpetrating offences against pupils at the school.

The former pupil was represented by Jonathan Wheeler, a solicitor with Bolt Burdon Kemp, who specialises in representing child abuse victims.

He confirmed the former pupil had received a payout from the Catholic Church, adding: “The money he received meant that he could set himself up in a business of his own and get his life back in order after it had fallen off a cliff.”

As part of the civil claim, a second former St Joseph's pupil came forward to say he had witnessed Fr Higginbottom apparently engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour at the school.

The Northern Echo has obtained a copy of the defence document drawn up for Bishop Hugh Lindsay, the Archbishop of Liverpool and trustees of the Liverpool Catholic Archdiocesan Trust.

It denied that the defendants were guilty of any negligence and denied the allegations of abuse.

The document says the claimant had ample opportunity to complain to other members of staff, such as his form master, the head teacher or to his parents when they visited.

It adds: “The defendants have no record of a contemporaneous complaint being made by the claimant, or any other pupil, against the said priests.”

St Joseph's College was a Roman Catholic seminary which gave a secondary education to boys aged 11 to 18. It was run by a board of trustees headed by the Archbishop of Liverpool. The school closed in 1992 following a decline in pupil numbers.

The Northern Echo contacted the Archdiocese of Liverpool, however it refused to comment on the legal action or the allegations against Fr Higginbottom.

The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, which suspended the priest, also declined to comment on the legal claim and how the allegations of sexual abuse related to the priest's suspension.

At the time Fr Higginbottom was suspended, parishioners were told he was "spending some time away from the parish" while information received was being investigated.

Since then, the diocese has refused to reveal any details of the investigation, prompting strong criticism from parishioners who feel they have been left in the dark.

Darlington Borough Councillor Cyndi Hughes, a parishioner at St Augustine's, said: "I continue to be at a loss to understand or explain why Fr Higginbottom is being prevented from resuming his ministry when there is no evidence against him.

“Michael's most basic human rights must surely have been breached by this unwarranted exile imposed by the church hierarchy.

"As a practicing Catholic, I am deeply saddened by the lack of communication shared with our parish community on why this decision was taken and why, in the absence of any proof against our parish priest, Fr. Higginbottom has not been returned to us.”

The Northern Echo approached Fr Higginbottom, who is now living in Jesmond, Newcastle.

He said he was not allowed to comment on the case because the investigation was ongoing, adding: “I’m not free to discuss anything because of legal restraints. I’m not allowed to say anything at all, I’m sorry.”

Asked about allegations that he had abused boys at St Joseph’s, Fr Higginbottom said he was not aware of the nature of the allegations against him – despite police confirming that he had been interviewed about the former pupil's claims.

NEW light has been shed on the mystery surrounding the suspension of popular Darlington priest, Father Michael Higginbottom. Joe Willis looks at how the long-running saga unfolded.

1998: Father Michael Higginbottom arrives in Darlington to become priest of St Augustine's Church (below). He goes on to earn a reputation among his parishioners as a respectable and hard-working man.

The Northern Echo:

December 2004: A former pupil of St Joseph's College (below), a seminary school near Wigan, in Upholland, Lancashire, complains that he was abused at the school by Father Higginbottom and others. Fr Higginbottom is removed from his parish.

The Northern Echo:
Picture: Sharon Sweeting

Parishioners are told he is "spending some time away" while information is investigated. No further details are given, although it is speculated that the investigation is linked to his time at the school.

2006: Lancashire Police's public protection unit receives an allegation of historic sexual abuse regarding Father Higginbottom at St Joseph's College, Upholland. Inquiries are made and Fr Higginbottom is interviewed. He is never charged.

December 2006: Two years on from the priest's suspension, parishioners admit they are increasingly concerned at his continued absence. They organise a collection to buy him a gift. “We wish he was back,” says one parishioner.

The Northern Echo:

2008: The former St Joseph's pupil concludes a civil claim against the Archbishop of Liverpool, Catholic Diocese trustees of St Joseph's and Bishop Hugh Lindsay. The man claims he was sexually abused at the school in the late 1970s by Fr Higginbottom. The diocese settles out of court, paying the man £35,000.

February 2009: Other former St Joseph's students who were taught by Fr Higginbottom set up an on-line petition to get him reinstated. One of the men, James Foley, describes the priest as a “an all-round good guy, very spiritual and very supportive of his students".

April 2009

The Northern Echo:

The new Roman Catholic bishop in the North-East, the Right Reverend Seamus Cunningham (below), says he understands the anger over the still-unexplained suspension of Fr Higginbottom.

The Northern Echo:

He adds that the diocese is doing everything in its power to resolve the issue, however he admits that did not mean there would be an quick solution.

April 2013: The Northern Echo publishes details of the civil claim against the Catholic Church which included allegations that Fr Higginbottom abused a boy while a teacher at St Joseph's College. Parishioners continue to stand by the priest and call on the Catholic Church to reinstate him as he has not been charged with any offence.