Death plunge priest's mystery final moments

The mystery of how a parish priest fell to his death while dusting his church may never be fully explained, an inquest heard.

Thursday, 28th April 2016, 6:09 am
Updated Thursday, 28th April 2016, 8:18 am
DUSTING: Genial priest Fr John Cribben was cleaning the arches of his church when he plunged to his death

The body of 76-year-old Fr John Cribben could have lain undiscovered overnight in an aisle at Our Lady and St Patrick’s in Walton-le-Dale before parishioners arriving for morning mass stumbled on the gruesome find.

A jury decided his death was a complete accident - a decision detectives agreed with after finding there were no signs of violence or a disturbance.

But exactly why he fell head-first from a mezzanine roof while cleaning a high arch with a vacuum cleaner hose is likely to remain unsolved.

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The inquest at Preston heard a 12-foot stepladder was found on the mezzanine above where Fr Cribben’s body was discovered.

An environmental health officer who examined the scene said the roof was not intended for standing on. And if it was being used as a platform to support cleaning work then it should have had scaffolding or barriers to prevent a fall.

“From what I can gather it wasn’t intended for the roof to be accessed,” said Andrew Howard from South Ribble Council. “I wouldn’t consider that a safe area to work from in its current condition.”

The inquest heard it appeared Fr Cribben had been dusting the arches when he fell, suffering devastating head and back injuries. But it wasn’t clear whether he had toppled off the ladder, or just tripped over the vacuum’s cable, hose or a rope which were on the roof level and were all hazards.

The Irish priest was last seen the previous afternoon and was found when parishioners arrived at around 9.10am for Mass. The doors of the church were locked and, when a key was brought, they walked in to find the vacuum cleaner still running on top of the mezzanine and Fr Cribben lying below it, face down on the tiled floor in a pool of blood.

“I knew he was dead,” said Anne Clark, the first to find him. “I could hear the vacuum running and the church lights were on. Someone said they had gone past late the previous night and the lights were on then. So he could have been lying there all night.

“It was a terrible shock and I still get flashbacks. But I have a photograph of him in my lounge and say ‘come on Father, help me.’ After more than 15 months it’s getting better.”

Coroner Dr James Adeley said there were no signs of illness and there was really only one conclusion open to the jury and that was accidental death.

He told Fr Cribben’s parishioners in court: “He seemed a splended fellow and a thoroughly nice chap.”

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