SUSPENDED priest Father Michael Higginbottom may never return to his parish - despite not being charged with any crime, an expert on Catholic Church sexual abuse allegations claimed last night.

Parishioners from St Augustine’s Church, in Darlington, where Fr Higginbottom was priest from 1998 until his suspension in 2004, are also not hopeful of his swift return.

A Northern Echo  investigation has revealed that Fr Higginbottom, who has been suspended for nine years, was questioned - but not charged - by police after being accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy.

The former pupil who was taught by the priest at St Joseph’s College, near Wigan, received a £35,000 pay-off from the Catholic Church – which did not accept liability - before the case could go to court.

Fr Higginbottom was interviewed by police over the allegations but was never charged with any offence.

The church has repeatedly refused to answer questions on the case from parishioners and the media.

David Greenwood, chairman of the Stop Church Child Abuse campaign, said: “The circumstances of this case don’t surprise me in the slightest.

“It’s due to internal law set down by the Vatican which in these cases requires the bishops to undertake all investigations entirely in secret.

“If it’s felt appropriate, the secret file will be passed to the Vatican to make a decision upon.

“The mechanisms of doing all that takes so long that priests are very rarely dealt with expediently.”

Mr Greenwood said it was very rare for a priest to be excommunicated or exonerated.

“It’s more likely that even a priest accused of the most serious crimes will merely be suspended,” he added.

Parishioners at St Augustine’s Church were today (FRIDAY) digesting the new information on Fr Higginbottom’s suspension.

Jim Cunningham, chairman of the parish council at St Augustine’s, said he believed the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, which suspended the priest, had completed its investigations and its report had been passed to Rome for a decision.

He added: “The Catholic Church isn’t known for doing anything quickly and I don’t expect to see him back anytime soon.

“I think there will be quite a few people who will be shocked (by the new information) but we come back to the point that there doesn’t seem to have been enough evidence for it to be brought before a criminal court.

“If it had been it may have been done and dusted by now and Father Michael would not still be in this kind of limbo.”