A disgraced Church of England priest who intimately touched and imitated sex with a 15-year-old girl has been jailed for three years.

Stephen Crabtree, of Ollerdale Avenue, Bradford, carried out the offences when he was working at a parish in the East Lindsey area of Lincolnshire in the early 1990s, after forming "an inappropriate relationship" with the victim following the breakdown of his marriage.

The 59-year-old admitted six charges of indecent assault on dates between April 1992 and April 1993. He was today jailed for three years and placed on the sex offenders' register for life at Lincoln Crown Court.

Judge Michael Heath, passing sentence, told him: "She was extremely vulnerable at that age and you took advantage. You knew she was 15 years old. You engaged in that relationship behind her parents back breaching their trust and the trust of the Church.

"You stand before me in disgrace and you have lost your employment.

"I am satisfied that at all times you knew very well that what you were doing was wrong.

"These offences are so serious that I can only justify prison sentences for them. I cannot draw back from immediate custody."

Mark Knowles, prosecuting, said the offences occurred when Crabtree was in his late 30s and the victim was 15.

The victim later told police they had kissed and cuddled.

"She remembers the defendant saying she looked more like she was 22 than her age,” he added.

Mr Knowles said the victim said she had been intimately touched by Crabtree and on one occasion he had simulated sex with her.

She said she ended the relationship because she feared he would want full sex when she reached her 16th birthday.

The prosecutor said the victim later told the then Bishop of Grimsby what happened between them and was advised to report the matter to police. She then spoke to an officer in the area in which she was then living but decided not to take the matter further.

Crabtree subsequently admitted the offences to the Bishop on two occasions but was only arrested in 2015 after the Church carried out a review of past complaints and the matter was passed on to police.

Sunil Khanna, defending, said Crabtree's life fell apart in 1992 after his wife disappeared after telling him she was going to visit her sister in Huddersfield. He later discovered she had emptied his bank account and moved to the USA.

"It was a horrendous time for him. He was devastated emotionally and sought pastoral help from the Church but was told just to get on with things.

"He was in an extremely dark place. He was extremely depressed and unhappy and finding it difficult to cope.

"Mr Crabtree remarried 18 months ago. His wife is also a minister. She lives in the West Yorkshire area.

"He attempted to move from Lincolnshire to West Yorkshire and was applying for positions. His applications were refused and he then discovered there was an inquiry."

Speaking after the case, Detective Superintendent Rick Hatton of Lincolnshire Police said: "The sentencing of The Rev Stephen Crabtree is reflective of the appalling abuse he perpetrated upon a young girl. His position was one in which the victim, and the community at large, should have been able to place great trust. This was not the case; this betrayal of trust had a profound effect upon the victim in this case. It has taken great courage and a period of time for this abuse to come out.

“Allegations of abuse are always taken seriously by Lincolnshire Police and the Diocese of Lincoln. The police are currently working in partnership with the Diocese to investigate a number of allegations of non-recent abuse. These investigations have come about due to a detailed file review carried out by the Diocese and a desire to ensure truth and justice for all past victims of abuse. The sentencing of the Rev Stephen Crabtree is as a result of this investigation.

“This operation is being overseen by strategic leads from the Local Children’s Safeguarding Board, Children’s Services and the Police. This has the full and active support of the Bishop of Lincoln. What is important is that previous cases are not reflective of current Church practice, and safeguarding policies within the church, as they stand currently, are robust and transparent."

The Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, said: “The sentencing of Stephen Crabtree is a just and appropriate punishment for the appalling abuse to which he subjected a child. That child had every right to expect to be safe in his company, and the devastating effects of his crime were compounded by the position of trust he held at the time.

“I am very sorry indeed that it has taken so long for proper justice to be served. I struggle to imagine the impact that such a serious crime has had on the life of the survivor of Crabtree’s abuse, and on the survivor’s family. I wish to pay tribute to their enormous courage and determination, and I hope that today they begin to feel that justice has been served.

“It was by following current House of Bishop’s practice guidelines that diocesan safeguarding staff recently discovered the allegations against Stephen Crabtree and immediately passed the information on to Lincolnshire Police. It is deeply shameful that the church’s past handling of the allegation fell well short of the expectations at the time. We stand ready to offer support to anyone who contacts us about issues of harm and abuse. We can promise that we will listen attentively to their stories, walk alongside them in seeking justice and ensure that their voices are heard. We will also pass all information about possible offences to the police, and support any investigation.

“All people are made in the image of God, and abuse of any kind is directly contrary to the will of God and an affront to human dignity. The Diocese of Lincoln is committed to ensuring churches are safe places for all, and our professional safeguarding staff work tirelessly to disrupt the conditions in which abuse can happen by ensuring that compulsory training and rigorous background checks are conducted for all clergy and church officers. We also work closely with the police and statutory authorities.”