A 76-year-old priest who preyed on seminarians and evaded prosecution since he was first accused of sex abuse in 2004 has been jailed for 18 years for five counts of buggery and seven of indecent assault.
Father Michael Higginbottom “regularly, systematically and horrifically” abused seminarians at St Joseph’s Seminary in Upholland, Lancashire in the 1970s and 1980s, jurors were told during a two-week trial at Burnley Crown Court.
Judge Andrew Woolman, sentencing Higginbottom on Tuesday, told him: “You were in the highest position of trust in relation to these boys, who you abused in a quite appalling way.”
The predator priest was tried for abusing two minor seminarians while they were boarding at the now-defunct seminary in the North West of England.
The first victim, now aged 54, was abused days after he joined the seminary in the late 1970s at the age of 13 and 14. “My sexual abuse happened so often I became numb to what was happening,” he told the court at a previous trial in 2017.
“My sexual abuse happened so often I became numb to what was happening.”
“I cried so often I believed I could have drowned in my own tears. I used to pray to die. There are worse things than death—living with an evil man and being left alone at Upholland,” he said in an emotional statement.
To escape the abuse, the victim stole a watch to get himself expelled.
Describing how the “physical, sexual and mental abuse” had affected his personal life, education, and work, the victim also narrated how he fought anger issues, and struggled to show affection to his wife and children.
Though he had always provided materially for his family, he said he struggled to show affection to his wife and children, adding: “A daddy who cannot love is only half a daddy.”
Higginbottom was originally found guilty at Liverpool Crown Court in April 2017 of offences relating to the first complainant, but the Court of Appeal quashed these convictions in November 2018.
A retrial was then called after it became known that jurors had not been given full details of the complainant’s conviction for fraud, which were not available at the time of the original trial.
Higginbottom’s lawyers suggested the victim made up the allegations to claim compensation.
The court was told that the complainant had been found guilty of a fraud in which he pocketed a four-figure sum.
However, after watching television news on the 2017 trial, a second victim came forward to say Higginbottom had abused him in the mid-1980s.
Richard Scorer, Head of Abuse Law at Slater & Gordon told Church Militant: “The conviction of Michael Higginbotham is welcome news for his victims, and we should salute their courage in coming forward. But far too often it turns out that the church had institutional knowledge of a perpetrator long before he was brought to justice. There are suggestions that this may have been the case here.”
“Far too often it turns out that the Church had institutional knowledge of a perpetrator long before he was brought to justice. This may have been the case here.”
When asked why the quasi-governmental Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) had not picked up Higginbottom’s case, Scorer explained: “IICSA cannot investigate every case—there are just too many, so it has to be selective and this one was never picked as a case study. But I fear this case reveals an all too familiar pattern, and so it raises the question once again: when is Pope Francis actually going to take decisive action to rid the church of paedophiles?”
In December 2004, a seminarian first complained to the Archdiocese of Liverpool about sexual abuse by Higginbottom.
The priest had left Upholland in 1998 and moved to St. Augustine’s Church in Darlington, Durham County.
In 2006, Lancashire police investigated the claim and interviewed Higginbottom, although he was never charged with any crime.
The seminarian later launched a civil claim against the Archbishop of Liverpool, trustees of the Liverpool Roman Catholic Archdiocesan Trust and Bishop Hugh Lindsay, former bishop of Hexham and Newcastle (who died in 2009).
Higginbottom was suspended from pastoral ministry in Darlington leading to a backlash from parishioners and former seminarians who campaigned to get him reinstated.
In 2008, Hexham and Newcastle diocese settled the case out of court, paying the victim £35,000.
At the recent trial, Jason Pitter QC, defending Higginbottom, pointed out that the priest had spent years working with teenage boys before and since the offending.
“There was very powerful character evidence during the trial, of the sort we would not ordinarily hear in cases of this nature. He is somebody who, apart from these few years of his long life, was in fact of positive, good character. It is unique in my experience to see it to this extent,” he said.
However, Wendy Chappell, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said that the priest had repeatedly described the allegations as “total lies,” claiming he did not remember either victim.
She added: “I would like to pay tribute to the two victims for their immense courage in coming forward and reliving their traumatic experiences by giving evidence against their abuser, with the first victim having to relive it a second time at the retrial.”
St. Joseph’s Seminary, which first welcomed pupils in 1883 and stands within a 153-acre site, closed its doors in 1992 following a dramatic drop in student numbers.
(Originally published in Church Militant. To comment on this story, click here)