A former Loughinisland parish priest has admitted defrauding the diocese of up to £145,000 — to give to a woman in “dire need”.
Details of the extraordinary case involving 78 year-old Father Conleth Byrne, who also gave the woman thousands of pounds of his own money, were revealed following his last-minute guilty plea at Downpatrick Crown Court on Tuesday afternoon as his trial was about to begin.
Father Byrne, now retired to Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone, had previously denied the charge of fraud by abuse of position, which involved giving 50 year-old Marie Hanna, from the Ballycastle area, up to £145,617 between January 2008 and October 2009.
The exact amount is to be confirmed at sentencing next month.
In an agreed statement of facts between the prosecution and defence, prosecuting lawyer Laura Ives said the payments were made in cash, obtained mostly through the cashing of cheques from the parish account, and followed a period where Father Byrne gave the woman around £45,000 of his own money.
She said the £45,000 had been obtained in loans from family and friends, and had since repaid.
Ms Ives said Father Byrne “knew the woman” but this relationship was not explained further in court.
It was stated that Ms Hanna presented herself at the parochial house in “dire need” after being released from prison, claiming she had been denied social security and was in need of medication and clothing.
Ms Ives said Ms Hanna then requested help on a “regular basis” alleging incidents such as damage to her property or a crisis involving one of her family members.
“The defendant received assurances that she was owed money from court claims and benefits and that money would be used to repay,” the barrister said.
In July 2009 it emerged a diocese accountant noted irregularities and the matter was reported to the church hierarchy and then to the police.
Ms Ives said Father Byrne had documented the payments made and cooperated fully with the church and police. She said he accepted he should have sought authority for the payments but maintained it was for charitable purposes.
Acknowledging it may have been “well intentioned”, Ms Ives said there was nevertheless a “high degree of naivety”.
“There is no evidence of the defendant making any personal gain,” she added.
The barrister went to say that Father Byrne had already paid the diocese back £20,000 and had wanted to pay back around £100,000 before the case came to the court, but his bishop noted this money was likely to come from “elderly relatives”.
“He is intent to make recompense as he can,” said defence barrister Sean Doran.
Judge David Smyth QC asked if there was any evidence of the money being paid for “sexual favours” or “blackmail”, but the prosecution said there was no evidence of this.
Pre-sentence reports were ordered for sentencing at Downpatrick Crown Court on 10 May
Disgraced priest jailed for fraud
A disgraced Catholic priest jailed for slotting $150,000 of parish cash into pokie machines could still work for the church once released from prison.
Father John Fitzmaurice, 57, was a trusted administrator and clergyman at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and Addington’s Sacred Heart Parish in Christchurch for 34 years.
But while he stood in front of his diocese as a well-respected church leader, Father Fitzmaurice was quietly siphoning funds from the church.
He wrote hundreds of cheques and paid them into his personal bank account.
The money – $149,000 over five and a half years – was used to support his spiralling gambling addiction.
Today, at Christchurch District Court he was sentenced to two years and three months behind bars after pleading guilty to eight fraud charges that Judge John Macdonald said amounted to “sustained criminal conduct”.
Crown prosecutor Marcus Zintl said it was ironic that Father Fitzmaurice was a man of faith, and the faith people had in him that was betrayed.
But church leaders, who said the long-serving clergyman’s fall from grace had caused “great scandal” for his fellow priests and Catholic community, vowed to support him “until the day he died”.
“He’s part of the church family. We’ll support him all the way,” said Bishop Barry Jones outside court.
Defence counsel Jonathan Eaton said the man who joined the seminary at 17 and became a priest at 23, could still work for the church he had devoted his life to.
While he could never work in Christchurch again, Mr Eaton said an “olive branch” had been extended by the Bishop of Auckland.
He also indicated they would be challenging the sentence and applying for Father Fitzmaurice’s release on bail pending the hearing of an appeal.
His client’s descent into addiction came when he became “isolated and lonely” about seven years ago.
Father Fitzmaurice began dabbling in playing pokie machines.
It escalated into a pathological addiction, which Mr Eaton highlighted afflicts many New Zealanders.
The pokies led to his repeated pattern of writing cheques which he cashed directly into his personal bank account.
When church leaders found large sums of money were missing, they spent $31,000 on hiring a private investigator.
The investigator began probing bank accounts and the trail soon led to Father Fitzmaurice who admitted the offending.
After murmurings in September 2011 that Fitzmaurice had been suspended for “financial irregularities”, Bishop Jones confirmed the shocking news by having a letter read at masses throughout the city.
Bishop Jones today expressed “disappointment” that his once-trusted priest had been jailed, having pleaded to the court for him to receive home detention.
He was also saddened to lose the services of “a very able and gifted” priest.
“His offending has caused great scandal – he had a very high reputation amongst people and people were very shocked to hear this had happened.
“But he’s exercised an excellent ministry for over 30 years, and now we don’t have that from him anymore.”
The church will continue to support him through his “turmoil”, and after counselling, he expected Father Fitzmaurice to come out of prison “stronger”.
They’d paid his living costs, covered his legal fees and counselling costs, and since the convicted fraudster had no assets or any savings were realistic that he couldn’t pay any reparation.
But Bishop Jones said: “Some kind of symbolic reparation when he’s in a position to do so… we’d expect that.”
An appeal against the sentence is likely.
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