A priest who gave just over £145,000 of church funds to a middle-aged woman has been told he betrayed the trust of his parishioners.
Father Conleth Byrne was sentenced to two years in prison – suspended for three years – and ordered to pay back £100,000 of the money taken from church funds in the parish of Loughinisland, Co Down.
The 78-year-old took the money over a 19-month period up to October 2009, giving all of it to Marie Hanna (53), from Ballycastle, Co Antrim.
Downpatrick Crown Court was yesterday told £45,000 of the money had already been paid back by Fr Byrne.
The priest, who is now retired and lives at Church accommodation in Portglenone, pleaded guilty last month to fraud just before his trial was due to begin.
The court was previously told that Fr Byrne began giving money to Ms Hanna after she called to his parochial house claiming to be in "dire need" of financial help.
Yesterday, the court was told the total figure taken by Fr Byrne was £145,617.
Despite the loss of the money, a number of parishioners presented glowing character references for Fr Byrne to the court.
Judge David Smyth told Fr Byrne: "For a reason that is by no means clear you betrayed the trust of your parish and misused a very substantial sum entrusted for the purposes of the parish.
"I have said it is unclear why. Any question of personal gain has been ruled out."
Mr Smyth said it was accepted the elderly priest "behaved naively but dishonestly".
He added: "It is agreed you acted without any favour to yourself (ruling out either monetary or sexual benefit) and that you naively accepted that these monies might be paid back."
Fr Byrne previously claimed Ms Hanna had vowed to pay the money back from two claims she said she was due to receive, which totalled £90,000.
"These monies were never going to be repaid," Mr Smyth said. "You knew that what was happening was not authorised and were dishonest by the standards of right-thinking people, including your church." Fr Byrne's defence barrister told the court he had been asked to "convey to them (parishioners) through this court his sincere apologies".
Mr Smyth sentenced Fr Byrne to two years in custody, suspended for three years, and ordered him to pay back the outstanding £100,000.
"You have indicated a desire to pay back what you took but I have to have regard to the extent to which that can be done," said Mr Smyth. "I believe £10,000 per year is the maximum without incurring the risk of you going into prison for default."
The Diocese of Down and Connor said the discrepancy in parish funds was discovered by its staff.
Fr 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 last month to fraud by abuse of position. A previous court hearing heard the woman had told Fr Byrne she was in dire financial need.
Cleric still held in some regard by his flock
For more than 50 years Father Conleth Byrne dedicated his life to his parishioners.
Countless numbers confided in him, both for spiritual guidance and advice on life.
But the bond of trust between Fr Byrne and his flock in Loughisland – where he had been based for a decade – was shattered by the revelation he had swindled £145,000 of Church funds.
He was not pocketing the money for personal gain, but handing all of it over to Marie Hanna (53).
The two are believed to have met when she was in prison in the mid-1980s, where Fr Byrne visited as part of his duties as a priest.
After her release, Ms Hanna contacted him in 2007 and claimed to be in "dire need" of financial assistance. Initially Fr Byrne gave her money from his own account, said to be around £45,000. When that was gone, he began to take from parish funds.
A number of character references were presented to Judge David Smyth, who said one word appeared in all of them: "compassion".
Indeed, the court was told that despite Fr Byrne's actions he is still held in high regard by many in the area. "Not only is the Church at a financial loss, but it is this that set the seal on your dishonesty," the judge said.
"For some reason you sacrificed a life of service to the Church and lost the respect of your parish."
The retired priest was driven from court, visibly upset by the proceedings, and back to Bethlehem Abbey in Portglenone where he now lives.