Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

'Destitute' woman pocketed £150,000 in parish cash given to her by priest

Father Conleth Byrne
Father Conleth Byrne

A woman at the centre of a Catholic Church money scandal saw a priest pay her almost £150,000 of parish funds after she said she was destitute.

Fr Conleth Byrne (78) handed over the large sums of cash to Ballycastle woman Marie Hanna believing that she was homeless and in dire financial difficulties, a court was told.

The retired parish priest, who was serving in the parish of Loughinisland, Co Down, at the time, pleaded guilty earlier this week to fraud by abuse of position.

He claimed that he gave the money to Ms Hanna (54) over a 19-month period out of "charity" and that he believed her assurances that she would pay the money back.

A prosecution barrister told the court that he had shown a "high degree of naivety".

Ms Hanna refused to discuss her involvement in the case when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph at her Ballycastle home.

It is understood that she had been questioned by detectives in relation to fraud by misrepresentation, however no charge was ever brought against her.

A PSNI spokeswoman said: "This investigation has concluded and there are no further charges against any other persons."

Sources close to the case said last night that Ms Hanna often ran up taxi bills amounting to several hundred pounds a trip travelling from Ballycastle to Loughinisland to ask Fr Byrne for cash.

The Belfast Telegraph has learned that Fr Byrne befriended Ms Hanna while she was in prison. He would have visited the prisons in Northern Ireland as part of his duties as a priest.

After her release from prison, Ms Hanna called at the parochial house in Loughinisland in September 2007 and claimed to be in "dire need" of financial assistance, Downpatrick Crown Court was told on Tuesday, after Fr Byrne admitted giving her parish funds.

She told him she was homeless, had no adequate clothing, had been denied social security benefits and was in need of medication, the court heard.

Fr Byrne gave her some money from his own savings, but she continued to call upon him seeking financial help, telling him she needed money for changes in accommodation after being evicted, to pay court fines, to replace damaged furniture and to help resolve "crises" in the lives of her close family.

Over the next few months Fr Byrne gave her £45,000 from his own savings and from money he borrowed from friends and family to help her, a prosecution barrister told the court.

After his own money ran out he began to use parish funds.

From early January 2008 to August 2009, Ms Hanna received between £133,000 and £145,000 in cash from Fr Byrne, which he obtained through the cashing of cheques from the parish account.

During his court case this week, Fr Byrne's defence barrister said that the priest, who receives a pension of around £900 a month, had already paid back £20,000 of his own money to the parish and has gathered a further £9,000 to repay.

His lawyer added that Fr Byrne intended to continue making repayments for the missing funds.

Background

Father Conleth Byrne was parish priest in the village of Loughinisland, Co Down, when he gave a woman almost £150,000 of parish funds. The 78-year-old cleric pleaded guilty at Downpatrick Crown Court on Tuesday to fraud by abuse of position. The court heard that the woman had told Fr Byrne she was in dire financial need. The retired parish priest is due to be sentenced next month.

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz