Pervert Priest Was Not the Only Paedophile Preying on Boys According to Witnesses

By Neil Docking and Kate McMullin
Liverpool Echo
August 11, 2019

Father Michael Higginbottom (Image: Daily Mirror)

A disgraced Catholic priest who sexually abused boys was not the only clergymen to have betrayed his youthful charges, it has been alleged.

Former Darlington parish priest Michael Higginbottom was jailed for 18 years for the sexual abuse of two teenage boys at St Joseph’s College in Upholland, near Skelmersdale , in the 1970s and 80s.

However shocking allegations have been uncovered suggesting that more boys at St Joseph’s seminary were preyed upon by perverted priests.

At least three 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 clergy who they should have been able to trust.

Father Michael Higginbottom was jailed for 17 years

Lancashire Police said it could not comment regarding further allegations, and the Archdiocese of Liverpool encouraged anyone with knowledge or suspicion of further offences at St Joseph’s to alert the authorities.

'Sadistic and cruel'

Higginbottom was jailed on July 30 following a re-trial at Burnley Crown Court.

Higginbottom was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle in 1969 and taught at St Joseph's College, Upholland, between 1974 and 1987.

The 76-year-old was originally convicted in 2017 of offences in relation to one victim but faced a re-trial after the convictions were quashed on appeal.

However at re-trial he was also faced with an additional charge in relation to a second victim and was found guilty of five counts of serious sexual assault and seven counts of indecent assault.

In court a jury heard how depraved Higginbottom would prey on his victims in his private headquarters.

The former priest carried out a series of violent sexual assaults and often used a belt to threaten or hit the boys if they were not compliant.

In his first trial his victim told the court how his life had been made a “living hell” by the “cruel and sadistic” priest.

The victim also claimed to have been abused by another two priests, who have since died.

In 2013, a Northern Echo investigation into Higginbottom’s lengthy suspension from his Darlington parish uncovered a ?35,000 out of court settlement 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 alleged that Higginbottom and two other priests 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.”

Father Ernest Sands killed himself in 2016 as he was due to face charges of indecently assaulting five boys while a music teacher at the seminary.

When allegations were first brought against Higginbottom in 2006, he escaped justice until another person came forward in 2016 - which subsequently led to his 18 year imprisonment this year.

His first victim came forward to the police, to report that he had suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Higginbottom between the years of 1978 and 1979.

And when the case went to trial in 2017 a second victim, who saw a TV news report of the court proceedings, recognised the priest as the man who had also sexually abused him in the mid-1980s.

Victim's relief over sentence

Following Higginbottom's sentence, lawyer Dino Nocivelli, who represents the first victim, said his client "feels relief" over his abuser's conviction.

He said: "The main feeling is relief.

"This is the second time he has been convicted for offences.

"And he feels like he has finally been believed and action has been taken.

"It has been a very difficult process for my client, but his message is quite clear: 'if you or anyone else has suffered any abuse at the hands of a teacher or a priest break your silence.'

"He is really keen to aspire others to come forward."

Appealing for other victims to share their stories, 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.

"They cannot turn a blind eye to this."

'It is clear unacceptable abuse took place at St Joseph's'

In a statement The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle expressed "profound sorrow" for Higginbottom's victims.

The statement said: "The Diocese of Hexham & Newcastle expresses profound sorrow for the terrible crimes of child abuse committed by Father Michael Higginbottom and offers a heartfelt apology to the victims who should have been afforded, and expected, utmost care from someone in such a position of trust.

"There can be no excuses. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families at this time.

"The procedures now in place highlight what should have been done in the past.

"The Catholic Church has implemented national safeguarding policies and procedures, which protect the most vulnerable in our communities.

"The Catholic Church continues to implement effective and accountable measures to protect all vulnerable groups including children, and to bring perpetrators to justice."

Meanwhile a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Liverpool said: "St Joseph’s College, Upholland, was a seminary for the training of priests in the north of England and was staffed by priests from across the country.

"The college was under the authority of a governing body with members from the seven dioceses of the north of England. The training of students for the priesthood ended there in 1987.

"It is clear from the case of Michael Higginbottom that unacceptable abuse took place at St Joseph’s.

"We encourage anyone with knowledge or suspicion of further offences at St Joseph’s, Upholland, to bring them to the attention of the police and statutory authorities.

"The fact that these crimes took place in the past in no way lessens the serious impact of them on the victims, their families, their friends, the Church and the wider community."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all concerned."

A spokesperson for the NSPCC said: “Higginbottom abused his position of responsibility to carry out an horrific campaign of sexual assaults against vulnerable children.

“The bravery of the victims who spoke out against Higginbottom and ensured he could be brought to justice must be praised, and their courageous actions prove that the passage of time is no protection for abusers.

"We encourage anybody who experienced sexual or physical abuse at the hands of an adult, no matter how long ago, to speak out and seek support.”

Children can phone Childline 24 hours a day on 0800 1111. Adults can contact the NSPCC Helpline 365 days a year on 0808 8005000.








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