DISGRACED Catholic priest Michael Higginbottom was at the centre of a wider paedophile ring involving other clergymen, it has been alleged.

As former Darlington parish priest Higginbottom is jailed for 17 years over the abuse of a teenager, shocking allegations have been uncovered suggesting that boys at St Joseph’s seminary were preyed upon by perverted priests.

At least four Catholic priests have been accused of abusing children at the facility in West Lancashire, with several pupils having reported horrifying mistreatment at the hands of clergymen.

Lancashire Police and the Catholic Church have issued apologies via the media to Higginbottom’s victim but maintained their lengthy silence in relation to allegations of wider abuse at St Joseph’s.

The authorities refused to address claims that a number of priests were involved in the abuse of youngsters at the seminary, including Father Ernest Sands, who killed himself last year as he was due to face charges of indecently assaulting five boys while a music teacher at the seminary.

Liverpool Crown Court heard that Higginbottom’s victim, whose life was made a “living hell” by the “cruel and sadistic” priest, had also claimed to have been abused by another two priests.

In 2013, a Northern Echo investigation into Higginbottom’s lengthy suspension from his Darlington parish uncovered a £35,000 pay out from the Catholic Church to another man who said he had been abused by three priests at St Joseph’s.

In witness statements, the man alleges that Higginbottom and two others assaulted him, describing an environment at the college characterised by fear and sexual abuse.

He said one priest “told me not to tell anyone, that it was good for me, that the devil was inside me and he was the only one who could save me.”

A number of other men have made allegations relating to the sadistic treatment of children, with priests said to have watched pupils in the shower, masturbated in front of them, fondled their genitals and in other ways sexually abused them, with one man saying the boys were made to dress as girls before being assaulted.

Despite an investigation into allegations against him in 2006, Higginbottom escaped justice until another person came forward in 2016, leading to the court case that culminated in a 17-year jail sentence.

The victim’s lawyer, Dino Nocivelli, is now demanding answers from the Catholic Church as his client prepares to take legal action against the institution.

Appealing for other victims to come forward, he said: “There are reports of at least four abusers in that one building and serious questions need to be asked.

“The church and the police should have and could have done more to investigate this.

“What did the church know? Could they have done more to stop this? Did nobody see what was happening?

“These were serious sexual assaults over a substantial period of time and there are serious questions for the church to answer.”