A self-styled Catholic bishop was in disgrace tonight after accepting money from criminals to officiate at the sham marriages of illegal immigrants.
Pat Buckley, 61, was paid £350 for overseeing ceremonies involving couples who had met only hours earlier and then separated immediately afterwards. They were non-EU residents marrying citizens from one of the member states to acquire rights to stay there. The sentencing marked the culmination of a police investigation into systematic abuse spanning three continents.
The cleric was given a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence, which will not be served after the judge suspended it due to his ill health.
Belfast Crown Court Judge Mr Justice Mark Horner said: "By acting as you did and solemnising these sham marriages you were undermining the institution of marriage and its very sanctity."
Buckley, of Princes Gardens in Larne, Co Antrim, is a colourful character who split with the Catholic Church following differences over issues like homosexuality.
The marriages of convenience were largely between Bangladeshi men and Portuguese women, the judge said, and the 14 charges involved offences committed between May 2008 and September 2009.
Detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said their investigation uncovered the systematic infringement of the EU immigration system in which criminals, some from a professional background, provided false documentation for work permits.
They advertised a sham marriage service in Hong Kong and mainland China for illegal immigrants already living in the UK, which included the provision of Portuguese or UK citizens for marriage for a fee of £18,000.
An illegal immigrant would be provided with a bride by the Portuguese community in Northern Ireland and a large number of marriages involved Bangladeshi or Pakistani men, convinced that the ceremonies would regularise their illegal status in the UK, police said.
To complete the fraud the couples would attend registrars' offices in Dundalk or Drogheda in the Irish Republic. A total of 23 people have either been convicted or pleaded guilty to a range of offences including immigration crime, sham marriages, money laundering and tax evasion. Custodial sentences amounting to 42 years have been handed out and a further 10 suspects referred to the Home Office's immigration enforcement team.
Detectives restrained criminal assets worth £6 million and seized large amounts of cash and jewellery.
The judge noted that Buckley was not paid a cut of the profits, simply his normal fee for conducting ceremonies. He said he had a reputation for siding with the downtrodden.
"What you did was wrong, you committed a series of serious crimes for which you obtained a financial reward," he added.
"As a consequence you have now lost your hard-won reputation, you are now a convicted criminal. You have lost face and standing in the community.
"Nothing can disguise the fact that you, as someone who professed to be a man of God and who should have been setting an example to others of how to behave, let yourself down, let your ministry down and betrayed the trust of all those to whom you should have been providing leadership and guidance.
"The loss of your reputation is bound to hit you hard."
Buckley said the court recognised that he sought to provide solace to the downtrodden.
"I have never sought to profit from the miserable circumstances in which the non-EU participants in this case have found themselves," he said.
"I have a genuine affinity with the poor, I do feel a strong sense of compassion for those who must live outside the EU in profound poverty and appalling circumstances."
He added: "I am sorry for allowing my compassion to bring me to the point of breaking the law, the law that our society agrees upon."
A mitigating factor in Buckley being spared prison was his ill-health - he is HIV positive and has heart problems.