Belfast Telegraph

'Fake monk' accused of being a crook

A Romanian man has been accused of infiltrating Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey in Portglenone to steal thousands of pounds from monks.

A court heard yesterday that Francesco Ferro (27) had used different aliases to travel across Europe before he infiltrated the monastery by posing as a Cistercian monk.

A judge was told the Romanian is fluent in five languages and currently under investigation by the authorities in Europe in connection with other alleged thefts in Switzerland and Germany.

Ferro, of no known address, faces charges of burglary, converting criminal property and multiple counts of fraud by false representation.

A Crown lawyer who opposed his application for bail claimed the case involved “a serious and significant breach of trust”.

Conor Maguire said: “There is certainly shown here a propensity for this applicant to abuse what could be described as vulnerable individuals to fund his lifestyle.”

He was detained in July after police who were called to investigate a £500 theft from a room in the monastery allegedly matched his fingerprint to a broken window.

Mr Maguire said the accused first turned up in May when the Abbey was expecting the arrival of a Brazilian Benedictine monk.

He had few clothes, one bag and a monastic habit with him which he wore and immediately fell into the monastery's daily routine, according to the prosecution.

But amid growing unhappiness at his story, it was discovered that £8,500 had allegedly gone missing from a 94-year-old monk's room, the court heard.

The money was said to have been given to him by a parishioner for safekeeping. Ferro was asked to leave and, following his arrest, admitted he was not a monk, according to the prosecution.

He had allegedly obtained food and return flights to Italy during his stay.

It was also claimed that he bought a local family a television, washing machine, microwave and other items.

Detectives discovered that eight unauthorised transactions were made on the monastery's credit card to the value of £2,000.

These were said to include the purchase of a flight to Dubai.

One of the charges against Ferro relates to the alleged theft of a bag belonging to a Brazilian woman after she arrived at Dublin airport.

Ferro is suspected of having previously been in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. The prosecution says he is under investigation in the latter two countries.

Mr Maguire told the court: “It is believed he has used aliases as he travels throughout Europe.”

According to the prosecutor, Ferro stated that, apart from others at Our Lady of Bethlehem, the only people he knew in Northern Ireland were the parents of a man he befriended in the monastery. Mr Maguire added: “This is a case where there is a significant risk of flight. He has very limited connections in Northern Ireland. He's a linguist who clearly has the ability and capacity to travel throughout Europe at will.”

Defence counsel Gary McHugh said his client intended to plead guilty to most of the charges, but would be contesting the alleged £8,500 theft.

The barrister said he was instructed that substantial sums of parishioners' money were at any time kept in the elderly monk's room.

Mr McHugh questioned the delay in advancing the case since his client was charged four months ago.

He told the court: “Notwithstanding the rather peculiar, exotic and difficult background this applicant faces in terms of any bail application, it remains the position that he is entitled to his liberty until the prosecution bring their case forward.”

The judge adjourned the application for two weeks to allow a full update on progress in the investigation.

Mr Justice Treacy said: “I want chapter and verse on the reasons for delay in a case which, although there are very serious charges, seems relatively straightforward.”

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