A Catholic priest has been arrested and charged with defrauding his diocese out of almost £150,000 over a two-year period.
Fr Conleth Byrne (78) allegedly made a number of payments to a woman with funds belonging to the Diocese of Down and Connor.
He was parish priest in the village of Loughinisland, Co Down, at the time of the alleged fraud.
Fr Byrne appeared before Downpatrick Magistrates Court and was remanded on bail to appear before the town’s Crown Court next month.
He was charged with dishonestly abusing his position — in which he was expected to safeguard the financial interests of the Diocese of Down and Connor — by making a number of payments to the woman, totalling £145,617.
When asked by the court if he would like to say anything in relation to the charge against him or call any evidence on his behalf, Fr Byrne replied: “No.”
The alleged fraud occurred between January 1, 2008 and October 31, 2009. Fr Byrne, whose address was given as Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone, was parish priest in Loughinisland for more than a decade.
He was actively involved in community life and facilitated pre-marriage courses for couples in the area. He retired suddenly in October 2009.
Fr Byrne was popular among parishioners, with many expressing shock at news of his arrest.
“It seems that his retirement came around the time of these alleged offences,” one parishioner said.
Another added: “I am very shocked to hear about this.
“Fr Byrne was a lovely priest and took the time to get to know all of his parishioners.
“I hope it is some sort of a mistake as many of the parishioners would be very disappointed if Fr Byrne was convicted. He would still have a lot of support in the area, however.”