A 55-year-old organist who swindled more than £145,000 from her church and clients at the bank where she worked, today walked free from court after her 12-month jail term was suspended.
Muriel Stewart broke down in Antrim Crown Court as Judge Desmond Marrinan told her she avoided a custodial sentence as a medical report had warned it would seriously damage her mental health.
Stewart, a member of the Women's Association at Dunloy Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim, stole £96,685 belonging to its treasurer.
The 55-year-old also stole £29,460 from a number of accounts in the First Trust Bank in Ballymoney where she had worked.
The mother-of-two also stole £19,440 from the Rev William Barton, believed to be a member of her congregation.
The thefts were carried out between January 1998 and Christmas Eve 2003.
She pleaded guilty to all charges.
Before sentencing, defence barrister Alan Kane said there was no physical evidence of what Stewart - a widow - had done with the money.
"It appeared to be an addiction and driven primarily to assist her two children," he told the court.
Mr Kane also asked the court to bestow a suspended sentence on Stewart as she had a "real sense of remorse and wrong for what she had done".
"She has lost her job, she has lost her entire position in society and she has lost her place in the community and her reputation," he said.
The court was told that Mrs Stewart had recently lost both her husband and her mother and was taking medication for depression.
Mr Kane also presented a cheque from the sale of land owned by Stewart which was near her home on Carrowadoon Road, Dunloy, for £145,000 to be given to the bank as a form of restitution.
Judge Marrinan told the court: "I find this to be the most extraordinary case of its type I've ever come across."
He added that he didn't understand why Stewart had not sold the land originally for monetary gain.
Reverend John Gilkinson, from Dunloy Presbyterian Church, also appealed to the court for a lenient sentence for Stewart.
"There is a deep sorrow and remorse for what she has done," he said.
"She has become almost a recluse.
"She is a lady truly sorry for what she has done."
Mr Gilkinson added that Stewart had become "a prisoner in her own home" .
In sentencing Judge Marrinan branded her behaviour "shameful and disgraceful", but said he was "satisfied that you feel enormous wells of deep remorse".
"I feel you have suffered much more than you deserve already," he said.
"I also believe from a report from a qualified psychiatrist that a custodial sentence would seriously damage your mental health."
He sentenced her to a 12-month suspended sentence for the three counts she was charged with, all to run concurrently.
Outside the court, Stewart refused to comment on the case.