A Catholic priest who ‘naively’ gave almost £150,000 of parish funds to a woman he believed to be destitute, has pleaded guilty to fraud.
Fr Conleth Byrne (78) told police he paid the money to Marie Hanna from Ballycastle over a 19-month period out of “charity” after she begged him for financial help, a court was told.
The retired parish priest pleaded guilty yesterday to fraud by abuse of position just before his trial was due to begin at Downpatrick Crown Court.
Fr Byrne was a priest in Loughinisland, Co Down, when Ms Hanna, who is in her 50s, called at the parochial house in September 2007 and claimed to be in “dire need” of financial assistance, the court heard. Ms Hanna told Fr Byrne she had just been released from prison, was homeless, had no adequate clothing, had been denied social security benefits and was in need of medication.
He gave her some money from his own savings to help with accommodation, but this marked the “beginning of a cycle” whereby Ms Hanna would come to him on a regular basis seeking help and assistance, the court was told.
Over the next few months, Ms Hanna received £45,000 from Fr Byrne’s own personal funds and from money he borrowed from friends and family to help her.
She would tell him she needed money for changes in accommodation after being evicted, to pay court fines, to buy medication, for sanitary requirements, furniture removals, to replace damaged furniture and for “crisis arising in the lives of close family members”, the court heard.
After he exhausted his own money 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.
The court heard that Ms Hanna assured Fr Byrne she would repay the money as she was waiting for substantial money from court claims and benefits.
Although the relationship between Fr Byrne and Ms Hanna was not fully explained to the court, other than he had known her for a long time, prosecution and defence barristers stressed there were no issues of “personal gain, blackmail or sexual favours” in this case.
Fr Byrne was arrested in late 2009 after the finance department of the Diocese of Down and Connor identified irregularities in the parish accounts.
“The defendant maintained... that he provided assistance to the woman out of charity on the basis of dire and immediate need as portrayed by her,” a prosecution barrister told the court.
“He believed also that a substantial amount would be repaid by her and that any deficit to the parish would ultimately be made good by him.
“The prosecution cannot gainsay his assertion that his actions were well intentioned and borne out of charity, albeit the amount of money involved suggests a high degree of naivety on his part.”
Fr Byrne’s defence barrister told the court that he was entering a plea of guilty to the charge of fraud on the basis that he was accepting he had acted dishonestly by not seeking authority to use parish funds to help Ms Hanna.
The court heard that Fr Byrne, who receives a pension of around £900 a month, has already paid back £20,000 of his own money to the parish and has gathered another £9,000 to repay.
His lawyer added that Fr Byrne intends to continue making reparation for the missing funds.
Fr Byrne was released on bail to return for sentencing next month.