A homosexual priest who looked at child pornography sent to him via gay chat rooms has been spared jail.

Father Edmund Higgins, who appeared at Isleworth Crown Court on August 16, admitted possessing 174 indecent images of children on his laptop.

The court heard Higgins, who had practised as a priest since he was 18, had struggled to make his sexuality public and visited gay chat rooms, where he was sent mostly adult pornographic images.

It emerged that 39-year-old Higgins, who was a priest at St Elizabeth’s Church in Richmond, was sent indecent images of children which he looked at then deleted.

Gavin Kirkpatrick, prosecuting, said Higgins knew what the files contained and they could not have come to his computer unsolicited.

He said: “He has looked at them. He didn’t search for them, but they came into his inbox.”

He also told the court Higgins was having online discussions about child abuse.

Higgins was given a sentence of eight months’ imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, in relation to eight counts of possessing indecent images of children.

He was also handed a supervision requirement and a sexual offences prevention order.

Brett Weaver, defending Higgins, said the former priest was deeply ashamed of his actions and thought the files had gone from his laptop, which has now been destroyed.

Mr Weaver said: “They were stored within a cache file within the hard drive which would only be accessible with an expert knowing where to look.

“Fr Higgins, having seen what they were, had deleted them and thought they were gone from his machine.”

He told the court Higgins had spent many years dedicated to his role as a parish priest and his homosexuality had created a dilemma for him, given the views of the church, and the gay websites “provided an output for the stress”.

He said: “He naively thought his secret would be safe and he would cause no one any harm.”

The folder on Higgins’ laptop contained 31 indecent images of children at level one, 11 at level two, 56 at level three and 77 at level four.

He did not have any images at level five – the most extreme pornographic image.

Mr Weaver said: “He has lost his job, his home, his career and his good character. The rest of his life will be completely changed by this conviction.

“He knows only too well he has brought shame on the church that he has served so well for so many years.”

Judge Anne Molyneux, who passed the sentence, said: “You have struggled to come to terms with your own sexuality.

“This may, in part, explain your offending. It cannot excuse it. All of the children in those images are vulnerable human beings.

“Each of those children were violated when the image was taken and violated again when the image was viewed.”