The Northern Echo (Darlington, UK)
6:00am Friday 5th April 2013 in Darlington
Exclusive By Joe Willis, Regional Chief Reporter
ABUSE ALLEGATIONS: Fr Michael Higginbottom outside his Jesmond home.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Uncovering the truth
The Northern Echo (Darlington, UK)
10:21 am Friday 5th April 2013 in Comment
AFTER nearly a decade of silence from the Catholic Church, The Northern Echo today reveals the truth behind the suspension of Father Michael Higginbottom.
Fr Higginbottom had been a popular parish priest at St Augustine’s Church, in Darlington, until the Church received allegations that he had sexually abused a boy while teaching at St Joseph’s College, near Wigan, in the late 1970s.
The former pupil, now an adult, took legal action against the Church and we can now confirm he received a pay-off of £35,000 before the case could go to court.
Fr Higginbottom was interviewed by Lancashire Police over the allegations, but was never charged with any offence.
Since then, the priest has effectively remained in limbo, still a member of the Catholic Church, but banished from the parish where he was loved and admired.
We understand the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church in dealing with the cases of priests who have been accused of serious, historic crimes.
However, we believe there must be a better, more humane way of dealing with cases of this nature than suspending the priest indefinitely, banning him from his parish, and failing to explain the situation to his bemused and angry parishioners.
As the years have gone by, parishioners have never stopped demanding answers: Why Fr Higginbottom was suspended? When would he return?
It should not have taken an investigation by a newspaper to answer the first of these questions.
The Church has treated its parishioners like children who are not mature enough to cope with the truth. It still owes church-goers, and Fr Higginbottom, an answer to the second question – even if, as we suspect, that answer is “never”.
Father Michael Higginbottom still suspended
The Northern Echo (Darlington, UK)
8:53am Monday 7th December 2009
By Jim Entwistle, Reporter (Darlington)
IN LIMBO: Michael Higginbottom
FIVE years after a priest was mysteriously removed from his post, a community has once more demanded action from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church.
Parishioners of St Augustine’s, in Darlington, have never been told the reasons behind the removal of Father Michael Higginbottom on December 10, 2004.
They were simply told that he was “spending some time away from the parish” while information was being investigated.
The ordination of Bishop Seamus Cunningham, in March, gave church members new hope that Fr Higginbottom would return, but that is yet to be the case.
Speaking yesterday, Cyndi Hughes, a Darlington borough councillor and member of the church community, said it was a frustrating situation for all concerned.
She said: “We are really sad and disappointed that this has not been resolved already.
“We do, however, remain hopeful that things will move on with the new bishop looking into the situation. We still want him to come back to us.”
Mrs Hughes said she has friends who had recently seen Fr Higginbottom and spoken to him about the situation.
She said: “He remains hopeful and keeps the faith that the church will see him right.
He maintains his innocence.
“He has not done anything wrong – that is the thing that is so hard for us to accept, and that five years down the line we cannot see any movement.
“We have to be hopeful that it will be resolved.”
Speaking at the weekend, a spokesman for the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle spoke of the church’s regret that Fr Higginbottom’s situation remained unresolved.
He said: “The present situation is clearly unsatisfactory to all concerned.
“Bishop Seamus and others have had further discussions and are continuing to work towards finding a solution.
“When information is available, a further statement will be made.”
The Northern Echo understands that the allegations against Fr Higginbottom are not of a sexual or violent nature and relate to his time as a teacher at Upholland College, near Wigan, in the Seventies and Eighties. A police investigation concluded without further action.
He was unavailable for comment last night.
Some of his former students arranged an online petition in protest of his treatment earlier this year, but it only attracted 13 signatures.
New bishop speaks out over suspended priest
The Northern Echo (Darlington, UK)
8:24am Thursday 2nd April 2009
AT WORK: The Right Reverend Seamus Cunningham outside Bishop’s House, in Newcastle
THE new Roman Catholic bishop in the North-East said last night he understands the anger over the still-unexplained suspension of a much loved priest.
Parishioners at St Augustine’s, in Darlington, have never been told the reason for Father Michael Higginbottom’s removal four years ago, nor if he might return.
The Right Reverend Seamus Cunningham, who was ordained two weeks ago as Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, said: “It is important for you to remember that this is very difficult for us as well.
“We are really agonised by the whole thing. You can rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to bring this to a just conclusion, but just because I am new does not mean there will be an instant solution.”
Yesterday, however, Durham MEP Stephen Hughes – a member of St Augustine’s congregation – said there was a new sense of optimism in the parish.
He said: “It has to be good news that we have a new bishop.
It is a dreadful situation and there is a form of mourning at the moment, but I think we have reason to be hopeful.”
Mr Hughes’ wife, Cyndi, a Darlington borough councillor, said: “An innocent person has been accused and his life completely changed.”
Fr Higginbottom was suspended in December 2004 and has never returned. Parishioners last month organised a substantial collection to mark the 40th anniversary of his priesthood.
The inquiry is being led by what the Church calls a Safeguarding Commission, headed by Fr Dennis Tindall.
It is believed that the allegations are not of a sexual or violent nature and relate to Fr Higginbottom’s time as a teacher at Upholland College, near Wigan, in the Seventies and Eighties. A police investigation concluded without further action.
Bishop Cunningham said: “I cannot say why it has taken so long, but I have to protect Fr Michael’s good name.
“I have a responsibility to Fr Michael and the parish, but also to the people making the allegations. We have to be very careful to protect good names. I am very much aware of the respect in which he is held and some of the wonderful work that he has done as a priest.”
Mr Hughes said: “If he is finally cleared, he would be welcomed back with open arms.
“There would be huge celebrations – a spontaneous party.”
Former students back exiled priest
The Northern Echo
20 February 2009
FORMER students of a priest who has been banned from attending his church for more than four years have started a petition to get him reinstated.
EXILED: Father Michael Higginbottom
Father Michael Higginbottom was suspended by the Catholic church without explanation in December 2004 and has been barred from his parish in Darlington ever since.
No official reason has been given for the action, but it is thought that the priest was taken out of duty due to reports of an unspecified incident alleged to have taken place during his time as a lecturer at Upholland College, near Wigan, in the Seventies or Eighties.
Now, two of his former pupils at the monastic training centre have started a campaign to show support for the priest.
James Foley studied there between 1976 and 1981 and said he has fond memories of his time in Fr Higginbottom’s class.
He works as the director of a telecommunications company in London, and decided to set up an online petition calling for the priest’s reinstatement, after following the case in The Northern Echo.
“I have been following the story for some time, and I thought this would be a way to remind the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle that Father Higginbottom has the support of people who knew him from his time at Upholland,” he said.
“Once we reach a certain level of support, we will take the petition to the Bishop. This has been going on for too long.”
Parishioners at St Augustine’s Church, Darlington, have repeatedly called for the priest to be returned to the pulpit, and for an explanation for his suspension.
During his years in exile, he is believed to have lived at the Minsteracres monastic retreat, near Consett, County Durham, and with family in Newcastle, although he is still officially listed as St Augustine’s priest.
Mr Foley, 44, was a pupil of the priest’s between the ages of 11 and 16. He said he had “no idea” what the allegations could be about, but hoped other ex-pupils would sign the petition.
“Father Higginbottom was an all-round good guy,very spiritual and very supportive of his students,” he said.
“It was a big surprise when I heard allegations had been made against him. I have no idea what happened.
“I look back very fondly to the teaching and support that he gave us at a critical time in our lives.
“There were maybe 40 priests on the teaching staff and he was considered to be one of the best, and the fairest. You could talk to him about anything.
He was very popular.”
Former pupils of Fr Higginbottom’s can sign the petition at ipetitions.com/ petition/frmichaelh No one from the church was available for comment last night.
Mr Foley added: “I don’t want to know about the allegations – it’s not my business. My main raison d’etre is to give a good character reference to someone who committed his time to us, and who I believe was a thoroughly good, professional, caring and understanding man.
No charges, but priest still exiled
The Northern Echo
12 December 2007
A DARLINGTON 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.
Father Michael Higginbottom
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 have confirmed that no allegations of a sexual or violent nature have ever been made and Fr Higginbottom has never been interviewed.
Fr 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, on Monday, it has emerged that investigations by police, social services and the Catholic church have found no case to answer.
The region’s Labour MEP, Stephen Hughes, attacked the church for its “farcical”
handling of the case.
Mr Hughes, himself 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.”
After his suspension, Fr Higginbottom spent time at Minsteracres, a monastic retreat outside Consett, and is now believed to be staying with family in the Newcastle area.
He is still listed as the church priest in St Augustine’s weekly bulletin, and parishioners are asked to pray for him every week.
Mr Hughes said that members of the church have asked the Right Reverend Kevin Dunn, the Bishop of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, when Fr Higginbottom is likely to return, but have had no answer.
“Bishop Dunn has said that the church is doing this to protect Fr Michael, but it can only be harming him,” he said. “It is quite farcical.”
Mr Hughes said parishioners were becoming frustrated with the secrecy surrounding the case.
“We are never given any information,” he said.
“We often ask the Bishop when we can expect to see Fr Michael back, but we always get the same answer – it will take as long as it takes.
“None of us has a clue what the allegations against him were. Parishioners include doctors, teachers, businessmen – we are not dummies and we don’t like being patronised in this way.
“I think the church thinks it is erring on the side of caution, but this is ridiculous.”
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 Fr Higginbottom was never formally interviewed because the evidence against him was so weak.
“The allegations are certainly nothing of a sexual or violent nature,” he said.
Attempts have been made to contact Fr Higginbottom, but it is understood he has been told by the church not to comment.
A spokesman for the diocese said: “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.”
A tally of the number of months and days since the priest disappeared is recorded each week in the pages of St Augustine’s newsletter.
One member of St Augustine’s who has remained in touch with the priest said: “He is finding it very hard.
He goes through peaks and troughs.
“All of the parishioners are angry about the way he has been treated and we have no idea what is going to happen to him.”
Official: Inquiry into priest is moving slowly
The Northern Echo
30 June 2005
THE man leading the investigation into a Roman Catholic priest who has been suspended from duty for the past six months has said inquiries were moving slowly.
Father Michael Higginbottom was withdrawn from St Augustine’s Church, in Darlington, in December, after “information” was received by the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.
Father Dennis Tindall, the diocese’s child and vulnerable adult protection officer, is heading the investigation.
He said: “The investigation is still ongoing at a slow pace. It has always been moving at a slow pace, but this is not due to a particular fault with the proceedings.
“As the investigation is continuing and we are working with the police, I can not discuss the details.
“Fr Higginbottom has been made clearly aware of some of the features of the investigation, but is not aware of them all at this stage.
“When we have completed our inquiries, we will release a statement explaining the outcome, as I am sure many people will wish to know how everything came about. However, I do not know when that will be.”
Parishioners said they were frustrated at not being informed about the investigation’s progress, why it was launched and are concerned Fr Higginbottom is being kept in the dark.
One parishioner, who asked not to be named, said: “We feel sheer frustration as the investigation is no further on from when it started and nobody is telling us anything.
“We are also very upset as Fr Higginbottom must be going through hell, especially as he has not been told the full extent why he has been suspended.
“We hope this whole thing just comes to an end soon, but that does not seem likely.”
The Northern Echo reported earlier this week how members of the congregation had written to the Bishop of the diocese, Kevin Dunn, to demand answers.