A PRIEST who was suspended in mysterious circumstances three years ago is banned from returning to church even though all charges against him have been thrown out, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Members of St Augustine's Church, in Darlington, are furious that Father Michael Higginbottom faces his fourth Christmas away from the parish on enforced leave.

Police sources confirmed last night that no allegations of a sexual or violent nature have been made and Fr Higginbottom has never been interviewed.

Father Higginbottom was suspended on December 10, 2004 when the church announced that investigations had begun into "information" received against him.

But on the third anniversary of his suspension, it has emerged that inquiries by the police, social services and the Roman Catholic church have found no case to answer.

Last night, the region's Labour MEP, Stephen Hughes, attacked the church for its "farcical" handling of the case.

Mr Hughes, a member of the church in Coniscliffe Road, said: "All the parishioners feel that Fr Michael has not seen justice. We talk about this constantly and we are deeply disappointed and angry about the way this has been handled.

"I understand that the police, social services and the ecclesiastical investigation found no case to answer, but still he is not given the opportunity to come back.

"It is quite farcical. Parishioners are getting really angry about this."

Mr Hughes said that the Right Reverend Kevin Dunn, the Bishop for the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, had given parishioners "no answers" when asked about Fr Higginbottom's future.

After his suspension, Fr Higginbottom lived in Minsteracres, a monastic retreat outside Consett, County Durham, and is now staying with family in the Newcastle area.

The priest was removed from duty after information surfaced about his time as a teacher at Upholland College, a monastic training institute near Wigan, nearly 30 years ago.

A police source said yesterday that Fr Higginbottom was never formally interviewed because the evidence against him was so weak.

"Police have dealt with this kind of allegation in the past and the individuals have always been questioned, but that has not happened," he said.

"We don't need that much evidence to interview someone if we have suspicions that they have done something wrong.

"The allegations are certainly nothing of a sexual or violent nature. He was never formally interviewed or arrested, and there was no intention of doing that because the information was so weak. There was nothing for him to answer to."

The Northern Echo tried to contact Fr Higginbottom, but it is understood he has been told by the church not to comment on the case.

A spokesman for the diocese said: "The distress felt by parishioners and friends of Fr Michael is shared by the Bishop and the diocese. This matter, despite the time taken so far, is still in process. We wish in no way to be unhelpful, but we are unable to make further comment at this stage."