Maverick cleric Pat Buckley has claimed that moves to prosecute him for allegedly conducting bogus marriages as part of a major immigration scam is an attempt to silence him.
The former Catholic priest appeared in court yesterday along with 15 other people in relation to a widespread police probe into alleged sham marriages, money laundering and fraud.
Fr Buckley, who is accused of conducting wedding ceremonies that have enabled foreign nationals to stay in the UK, said the decision to prosecute him was "an attempt by the establishment to silence a priest who has been the champion of the marginalised for 36 years".
He insisted that he "never knowingly" celebrated a bogus marriage ceremony.
The 49-year-old has been charged with conspiracy to defraud the Home Secretary by facilitating foreign nationals to gain entry to the UK on dates between January 2004 and September 2009.
He remained in the public gallery at Laganside Magistrates Court yesterday along with the other defendants while the case was briefly mentioned before a district judge.
Solicitors for several of the accused indicated that their clients would be applying for legal aid.
The case was brought before the court following an extensive operation by officers from the PSNI's organised crime branch.
Following the short hearing Fr Buckley told the Belfast Telegraph he never knowingly celebrated a sham marriage and said the prosecution against him was "reprehensible and dubious".
"The decision by the PSNI and PPS to prosecute me is groundless and highly suspect and represents an attempt by the establishment to silence a priest who has been the champion of the marginalised for 36 years," he said.
Fr Buckley added he will robustly defend the case and that "those responsible for the dubious prosecution will be held to account by all legal means".
The other 15 defendants in the case, with addresses in Newry, Newtownards, Bangor and Dungannon, are charged with related offences including participating in sham marriages, conspiracy to defraud and acquiring criminal property.
One of the defendants, Ho Ling Mo, is a Belfast-based solicitor. The 40 year-old is charged with conspiracy to defraud.
The case was adjourned to February 7 for a date to be fixed for preliminary enquiry.
Concern has been mounting recently over the number of bogus weddings being conducted across Northern Ireland. Last month the UK Border Agency revealed that immigration officials and police broke up 35 suspected sham marriages within the space of just six months last year.
Of the 35 weddings disrupted, 42 people were arrested on suspicion of immigration offences.
Some of these weddings have subsequently turned out to be genuine, but the border agency has said that all leads must be followed and investigated.
Rebel priest Pat Buckley was sidelined by the Catholic Church in the mid-1980s when he pursued his own ministry for those who felt alienated by the traditional Church. He was excommunicated after he was made a bishop by another rebel, the Tridentine bishop Michael Cox. He proceeded to set up an independent ministry from his church house in Larne where he continues to conduct wedding ceremonies for those who cannot be married by the Catholic Church. Last March Bishop Buckley entered into a civil partnership with his Filipino boyfriend Eduardo Yango.