A PARISH priest whose life was turned upside down after he was wrongly accused of child abuse has spoken for the first time of his ordeal.
Father Geoff Hilton, the priest at St Osmund’s in Breightmet, said he was “confused and bewildered”
when police turned up at his door to arrest him last November.
Since then, he has been forced to move away from his home, his work and his friends while police investigated the claim.
Now, after six months with the allegation hanging over him, Fr Hilton has been cleared of any wrongdoing and has returned to work.
He took his first service last weekend — and was welcomed back by his loyal parishioners, who have stood by him throughout the process. Fr Hilton said: “I have had wonderful messages of support from them, especially over the Christmas period.
“I am very relieved, very happy, and very glad to be back to normality.”
The 54-year-old former policeman was made aware of the allegation when two police officers knocked on his door and explained that they had come to arrest him.
He was told only brief details of what had been alleged — that it related to Fr Hilton’s first parish in Burnage, in 1989 — but other than that, he did not know why he had been arrested.
Fr Hilton said: “It came out of the blue. I was confused — that was my initial reaction. It all happened so quickly, and you’re caught up in a kind of process.”
Fr Hilton was held by police for five hours while he was questioned by detectives, photographed and fingerprinted.
The Catholic church also held its own inquiry, which meant that Fr Hilton was moved out of the St Osmund’s presbytery to a village near Preston while the matter was investigated.
Fr Hilton said: “It was a bit disorientating at first, but like everything else, you get used to it.
“Friends came to visit and the people of the village were very friendly.
“If anybody comes into this kind of situation, there has obviously got to be a certain degree of worry about what people are thinking.
“But it was being removed from work and friends and family, who are mostly in Worsley and Walkden, that was the hardest.
“It was difficult travelling to see them, but they have been extremely supportive and understanding of the situation.”
He is now also looking forward to returning to sport — Fr Hilton has been a rugby league referee for 22 years and plays crown green bowls professionally at county level.
He said he blames no one for what happened, adding: “There is no point in being bitter about it, because that does nobody any service at all.”
The person who made the allegation was a child of eight or nine at the time in question, and is now aged 36.
Police said they would not be taking any action against him.
Catholic Dean Fr Michael Cooke, said: “Father Hilton’s return is good news for the parish, the deanery and the diocese but, most of all, for himself, since he has been through a traumatic few months.”