Sex abuse priest jailed for 17 years

Fr Michael Higginbottom
Fr Michael Higginbottom

A “cruel sadistic” catholic priest who repeatedly raped a boy almost 40 years ago in a former Wigan seminary was jailed for 17 years today.

A judge told 74-year-old Father Michael Higginbottom: “For about six months in the late 1970s you made a young boy’s life a living hell.”

The offences, which a jury found him guilty of yesterday, took place at St Joseph’s seminary in Upholland in UpHolland where the defendant was a priest and teacher.

Judge Andrew Menary, QC described Higginbottom as “someone who undoubtedly had a mean and cruel strike. The evidence makes plain that when you were teaching you employed methods that today - if not then - would be recognised for what they were cruel sadistic bullying.”

He said that the victim, now aged 52, “has been haunted by demons” ever since and an eloquent and moving impact statement from the victim was read to the court.

In this the man, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, said: “My abuse started within the first week of being left alone in that cold dark place.

“It was difficult to try to portray what that place was like. It was the polar opposite of the loving caring home I came from. I was subjected to physical, sexual and mental abuse at his hands. My sexual abuse happened so often I became numb with what was happening.

“I cried so often I believed I could drown 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.”

The victim, who was 13 and 14 at the time of the repeated abuse, told how it went on to affect his schooling, adult life and relationships and had kept his ordeal secret from his wife until he eventually told a psychiatrist.

He suffered from rage, bitterness and anger issues and worked long hours to occupy his mind. He said having children gave him “joy in my hardened heart” but while he gave his children what they wanted it was not what they needed - himself. “A daddy that cannot love is only half a daddy,” he said.

Liverpool Crown Court heard that he managed to escape the seminary by stealing a watch and consequently getting expelled but he was left angry that no-one ever asked why he had changed so much in those six months and he became a rebel.

Higginbottom, of West Farm Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, had been convicted by 10-2 majority verdicts of four offences of gross indecency and four of indecent assault between September 1978 and March 20, 1979.

He had also faced two allegations of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old boy at the seminary but at the start of the trial the prosecution offered no evidence on those charges and not guilty verdicts were recorded.

The Catholic Diocese of Liverpool paid out £35,000 to another former pupil who alleged he was sexually abused by Higginbottom at the college in the late 1970s. The payment was made without admission of liability and Higginbottom was never charged in relation to that allegation.

Higginbottom, who stood in the dock listening to proceedings using the loop system, was suspended by the church in 2004 from his parish in Darlington.

Jailing him Judge Menary said that aged 13 the boy had been given the place at the seminary to complete his education and consider a vocation in the priesthood, to the delight of his devout parents.

“What you did to him there effectively destroyed the remainder of his childhood and did a good job of destroying any faith he ever had.

“Within about two weeks of his arrival you had targeted him for your own sexual gratification. As a matter of routine you took him or summoned him to your private quarters where you systematically committed sexual acts on him.”

He said that the victim and other former pupils had “described in graphic terms the excessive and inappropriate corporal punishment you seemed to enjoy inflicting on the boys.”

Judge Menary added the victim’s mental health has suffered after having nothing to distract his mind after a series of accidents. “What you did to him has defined his life and will continue to do so long after you have been punished today.”

He told Higginbottom, who showed no emotion, that it was clear he had served parishes faithfully for many years providing dedicated and valuable support to many people during his time in ministry.

But it was his position as a trusted priest and teacher that allowed him access to the young boy and allowed the abuse to happen.

“Nevertheless it is a huge and terrible personal tragedy for you to find yourself in a position where you are facing a lengthy prison term and where your legacy now will only ever be that of a priest who abused a young boy.”

He ordered him to sign the Sex Offenders Register for life.

During the six day trial HIgginbottom, who had been a physics mater, a football coach and a form teacher at the seminary, said he did not remember the boy and denied the allegations.

Adam Birkby, defending, said that he did not seek to minimise the psychological impact on the victim but he pointed out that he had claimed he had also been abused by two other priests, who are now deceased.

He said that Higginbottom had contributed to his congregation and wider community and “was of exemplary good character over the years since.”

He also pointed out that the defendant has health problems including diabetes and a heart condition and suffered a series of mini strokes last year.