Priest takes to the witness stand to deny historical sex attacks on Wigan college pupils

Fr Michael Higginbottom arriving at court
Fr Michael Higginbottom arriving at court

A priest has denied sexually abusing two schoolboys at a Catholic seminary near Wigan in the late 1970s and mid-1980s.

Both complainants claim Father Michael Higginbottom, 76, targeted them separately while they boarded at the now closed St Joseph's College in Up Holland.

But Higginbottom, who taught at the college for boys aged between 11 and 18, has told a jury at Burnley Crown Court he could not remember either of them and said he had not sexually abused anybody.

The court has heard the first complainant told a friend about the alleged abuse at St Joseph's in the late 1970s, and went on to report the matter to the police in 2014.

Last week, jurors were told by lawyers for Higginbottom that the complainant had a conviction for fraud by false representation and put it to him that he was someone prepared to lie to get money, which he denied.

On Tuesday, the jury heard a number of facts agreed by the prosecution and defence in the trial - including that the fraud took place from the beginning of 2013 to 2015.

They heard that an earlier sex abuse trial took place at Liverpool Crown Court in April 2017 involving only the first complainant, and that Higginbottom was convicted in relation to the alleged offences.

However, details of the complainant's fraud conviction were not at that time available and so were not presented to the jury.

In November 2018, the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, quashed Higginbottom's convictions and ordered the case be retried on the basis the fraud matter should be placed before a jury to assist them in assessing the complainant's credibility, the court was told.

The second complainant in the current trial came forward to say he had been abused by Higginbottom in the mid-1980s after he watched a television news item on the 2017 trial which he said had "brought back memories of what happened".

Jurors heard a third former pupil at St Joseph's had made an allegation of sexual abuse against Higginbottom and other former staff members of St Joseph's, and had brought a civil claim against a number of organisations representing the Catholic Church.

In 2009, the defendants in the civil claim settled the case, the court heard, but no admission of liability was made and Father Higginbottom was not consulted about the claim nor was he party to the proceedings.

The £35,000 settlement and the surrounding circumstances were reported in the Northern Echo newspaper and the articles were readily available online, the jury was told.

Lancashire Police investigated the allegations made in the civil claim, but Higginbottom was not prosecuted following a full and thorough review by police of the complaint and the evidence because there was no realistic prospect of conviction due to the unreliability and dishonesty of the civil claimant, the court heard.

The matter was reinvestigated when the first complainant came forward in 2014 and Higginbottom was also charged in relation to the civil claimant's allegations, but a further review by the Crown Prosecution Service led to no evidence being offered on those counts and not guilty verdicts were recorded.

Jason Pitter QC, defending, asked Higginbottom: "We have heard something of a settlement or payout from the Church to a particular person. As far as that person is concerned, did you have any knowledge of that settlement at the time?"

Higginbottom replied: "Not at all."

Mr Pitter asked: "Had you done anything inappropriate to him?"

"No," he said.

Mr Pitter went on: "When did you first become aware of his allegation and the settlement?"

Higginbottom said: "Because it was published in the Northern Echo newspaper."

Mr Pitter said: "Did you abuse any of those three?"

The defendant said: "No."

Mr Pitter said: "Did you abuse anyone?"

"No," he repeated.

Mr Pitter said: "Over the years, how many pupils had you taught there?"

Higginbottom said: "Over a thousand."

The defendant, of West Farm Road, Newcastle, denies five counts of buggery and seven counts of indecent assault.

Proceeding