|>>|| No. 4727
One of Britain’s top spy chiefs quit after it emerged that he helped a paedophile Catholic priest avoid jail, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Prime Minister Theresa May was last night accused of a cover-up over the scandal as she knew of GCHQ director Robert Hannigan’s connection to the child sex offender when he stood down in 2017. At the time, Mr Hannigan had cited ‘family reasons’, with this crucial link kept secret.
The high-flying civil servant, who was lauded for his role in striking peace in Northern Ireland, stunned Whitehall with his exit after just two years in charge of GCHQ.
This newspaper has learned he stepped down after the National Crime Agency discovered that he helped a close family friend avoid a custodial sentence for possessing 174 child pornography images After Mr Hannigan provided a character reference for Father Edmund Higgins at his 2013 trial, the priest’s eight-month sentence was suspended. The judge said Higgins had ‘struggled with his sexuality’. But Higgins went on to reoffend, and during an NCA probe his links to Mr Hannigan were discovered and No 10 was alerted.
The powerful mandarin gave the reference ‘in good faith’ a year before his appointment as director of the 5,000-strong Government Communications Headquarters, the notoriously secretive eavesdropping agency. After his conviction, Edmund Higgins, who had served at St Elizabeth’s Church in Richmond, South-West London, was defrocked and changed his name to Edmund Black.
With the Prime Minister’s blessing, he was allowed to resign on January 23, 2017, citing family commitments. Anonymous briefings were given to the media that he would be caring for sick relatives. That same year, Mrs May said: ‘The sunlight of transparency acts… as an important check and balance, and helps ensure the highest standards of public life among senior Government representatives.’
Last night Mr Hannigan, who began to train as a priest before joining the civil service, confirmed that Higgins had been a family friend for two decades. But he admitted his ‘judgment was completely wrong’ in providing the character reference. After his conviction, Higgins, who had served at St Elizabeth’s Church in Richmond, South-West London, was defrocked and changed his name to Edmund Black, but continued to offend.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that No 10 was alerted in early 2017 that the NCA was investigating Higgins as part of a major probe into online chatrooms that hosted abuse of babies. His connection to Mr Hannigan was highlighted to figures at the very top of Government, including the Prime Minister.