A paedophile priest kept his freedom until he died after Sussex Police destroyed his victims’ paperwork.

Two brothers reported the years of sexual abuse they were subjected to at the hands of Reverend Roy Cotton to police in 1996.

But the priest, who had a history of abuse allegations, died a free man in 2006.

When Northamptonshire Police linked Cotton to another case of child abuse that year, officers contacted Sussex Police only to find the file, including vital photographs and other evidence, had been destroyed.

The abused brothers from Eastbourne, John and Gary*, have now won damages from the Diocese of Chichester in recognition that the Church of England did not act to stop Cotton and accomplice Reverend Colin Pritchard abusing them when they were choirboys in the 1970s and 1980s.

Former Bexhill vicar Pritchard was jailed in 2008 but Cotton had died two years before the case came to court.

John said: “Cotton could have been convicted and he wasn’t. He died instead and I do feel cheated of justice.

“I didn’t know at the time that Cotton had a previous conviction for sexual assault on a child but it would appear neither did Sussex Police.

“One thing which is for certain is the church did know.”

John and Gary had originally approached Sussex Police to say they had been abused but the Crown Prosecution Service decided in 1999 that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Cotton.

Officers told the brothers the case would be left on file so it could be reopened if any other evidence was found.

But when Northamptonshire Police launched its own investigation and contacted Sussex Police seven years later, the file had been destroyed.

The brothers' solicitor, Tracey Emmott(COR), said: “How could the police have simply destroyed the file on such a sensitive issue when they had said they intended to keep it open?

"Because Roy Cotton had died the brothers didn't get the justice they deserved."

Ms Emmott said Cotton and Pritchard were believed to have abused many more boys and urged victims to come forward.

A spokesman for Sussex Police said that until 2010, national police policy under the Data Protection Act was to destroy information relating to individuals after seven years.

The force was unable to find details of the brothers’ case or any officers involved despite spending three days looking for it.

A spokesman said: “Because of the Ian Huntley case there has been a change in policy.

“Since this case took place there has been a clear policy change.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.