Britain's most senior Roman Catholic, the Archbishop of Westminster, was under attack yesterday for allowing a known paedophile to continue working as a priest.

Despite repeated warnings of the danger posed to children by Father Michael Hill, Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor appointed the pervert as chaplain to Gatwick - where he abused a youngster who missed his flight and wandered into the airport chapel for comfort.

The full extent of the Archbishop's involvement in the scandal emerged after the church admitted secretly paying compensation to two victims of Hill, who was jailed for five years in 1997 for sex offences.

The church authorities - who never informed the police of Hill's vile activities - imposed a confidentiality clause on the two brothers after paying them thousands of pounds.

And yesterday the Archbishop, who was warned as long ago as 1983 that the priest was a child abuser, resisted calls for his own resignation.

But the man appointed by the Pope in February admitted: 'Did I make a mistake at that time? The answer is yes, of course I did. But what I understood then, what many others understood then, about this (paedophilia) is very different from now. The Catholic Church take child protection very, very seriously.

'Yes, there were warnings about this man and certain options were put forward to me. The one I took I thought was, in the light of the circumstances, a safe one. I have stated that I did not act irresponsibly, though, if a similar situation arose today of course, I would act differently.'

The Archbishop said that police were not called in because child abuse by priests was at that time regarded 'as more a moral and pastoral problem than a police problem'.

Hill, who abused children for almost 20 years, worked for much of his career under the authority of Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor, who was previously Bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

Shortly after the 66 year old paedophile was jailed the Archbishop insisted he had always acted properly in his management of the priest.

But his actions were heavily criticised yesterday after letters he had received, warning of the continuing risk to children, were revealed.

Hill, who was ordained in 1960, began his assaults in 1977 at St. Teresa's Church in Merstham, Surrey, where he abused a ten-year-old altar boy who called him 'God Father' and committed offences against another ten-year-old.

In 1979 he was transferred to St Edmund's in Godalming, where he continued to assualt altar boys. When he 'got himself involved' with a boarding school, parents alerted the Church about his behaviour.

One mother went to then Bishop Murphy-O'Connor in 1980. 'I told him what was going on,' she said.

'He said he'd deal with it. Little did I know he'd take Father Hill from this parish and put him another. He should never have done that.'

Hill was moved to St. Catherine's in Heathfield, Sussex, where he abused two brothers who were altar boys.

One of his many victims, then aged nine, told BBC Radio Five Live yesterday: 'He used to come in to me, kneel next to my bed and start reading me stories about know, the Lord....and he used to put his hand under the cover and down my pyjama bottoms. I used to hate it, you know, my worst nighmare.'

In 1983, Hill was ordered to undergo therapy in a home for problem priests in Stroud, Gloucestershire. But two years later Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor made him chaplain at Gatwick - a magnet for youngsters which was once described as the 'Leicester Square of Sussex'. While there, he came into contact with his last known victim when the boy, who had learning difficulties, went to the chapel.

Hill later took him on a pilgramage to Loudres, molesting him in a shower.

Allegations were made against him in 1996 and he was jailed the next year for nine offences of indecent assault and one of gross indecency. Judge Stuart Sleeman said: 'If young boys and parents cannot trust a priest, who can they trust?'

At the time, Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor's predecessor, Cardinal Basil Hume, said: 'Clearly, if the local bishop had known then what is revealed now, a different course would have been taken.'

But Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor said then: 'I first became aware of some general concerns regarding Father Hill in 1981 and required he attend a therapeautic centre. Though the reports from the centre were inconclusive I withdrew his licence to work in parishes. In 1985 he was permitted to return to a limited ministry as an industrial chaplain.

But the letter sent to the Archbishop suggest that far from being 'inconclusive', they made clear Hill represented a continuing danger to children.

In one dated June 28, 1983, Father John Murphy, then head of the centre in Stroud, warned him: 'There is still a risk that Father Hill will act out again, in fact, no one could give any moral certainty that he would not, especially when he is reported to have said he believes the children enjoyed their experience with him.. A high risk does pertain.'

Dr. Seymour Spencer, of Oxford, who had also worked with Hill for the Church, warned the Bishop in a letter dated just six days later that the priest 'could well commit further pederastic acts'.

He said Hill had been 'aloof, even a tiny bit grandious' in response to attempted therapy and needed to be 'steered in some direction of a therapeutic nature if you are to avoid further scandal emanating from Michael.'

Another letter that month from Father Hillary Clark warned: 'Michael is attracted to pre-adult teenagers...there is a need to protect his pastoral contacts, the good name of the priesthood and, not least, himself from the worse consequences of his behaviour, eg police involvement.'

Michelle Elliott, director of the child protection charity Kidscape, said: 'The Archbishop should resign. If he'd taken action as soon as he found out about this man all those other children wouldn't have been abused. My real objection is that he is still not taking responsibility.'

The Church, he said, was still defending itself and the priest instead of the children.

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