Bishop Pat Buckley admits role in sham marriages flouting immigration laws
Controversial cleric and self-appointed bishop Pat Buckley has admitted involvement in 14 sham marriages, whose purpose was to flout the immigration laws.
However Belfast Crown Court heard that the 61-year-old former Roman Catholic priest was neither an instigator nor a profiteer of the scam, who allowed his naivety in thinking he was helping others to blind him from the fact that what he was doing was wrong.
The cleric, from Princes Gardens in Larne, who was to have faced a re-trail in the New Year, pleaded guilty to 14 charges of conspiracy to defraud, while five others dating from 2004 to 2009 were not proceeded with.
Mr Justice Horner, who said he wished to re-consider the papers in the case and to review a defence file on Bishop Buckley's deteriorating health, will pass sentence on him next Thursday.
However the judge was told it was accepted, given his health and the facts, Buckey's was a highly exceptional case which would allow the court to suspend any prison term.
Leaving court, the shamed cleric said he was attempting to hide what he he had done, but described his guilt more as technical offending.
"I haven't an anorak over my head. I'm still wearing my collar," he said.
"I'm not slinking out. I feel a bit lighter to get something that's been hanging over me for four or five years dealt with.
"But obviously I have a heaviness of heart because technically, at 61, I now have a criminal conviction.
"I'm limited in what I can say as I have to return to the court next week for the judge to impose sentence."
Buckley's case had been listed on court papers on Thursday simply as "a mention", however his defence QC Brendan Kelly asked that he be re-arraigned on counts 5 to 18, to which the bishop then pleaded guilty.
Mr Kelly said given the wealth of information already before the court and a file on his worsening health condition, a pre-sentence report was not required and the case should proceed to sentencing.
Later he said that the guilty pleas had not come easy for the bishop, and no doubt had required courage on his part. Mr Kelly said that his ministry, of over 37 years, was renowned and that he had been officiating at weddings both here, in the Republic of Ireland and also frequently abroad. Those who used his services, he said, had often struggled or had difficulties in getting married.
Mr Kelly said it was Bishop Buckley's purpose, carried out in a combination of openness and obvious compassion to help others and that this in turn had presented a significant lure to those operating the sham marriage scam as they preyed upon needy individuals seeking to remain in the UK.
Bishop Buckley, he claimed, was used by others and that initially he saw nothing untoward in what he was doing, but "now by his his plea, readily accepts that when the marriages became more frequent and indeed frenetic their purposes became obvious.... and by his plea, accepts he knew their true nature".
Mr Kelly further claimed that it was perhaps a product of his idealism and compassion which had allowed him to continue his involvement, although neither was an excuse for his behaviour.
However, the lawyer said the Bishop received little benefit and what he did receive could be described as something akin to a normal wedding fee, "not for him the profits...not for him payments of up to £5,000 or more".
Mr Kelly claimed his client was a man who sought to unite communities and was known particularly as a man who invested and acted on behalf of the disadvantaged and those without a voice.
Mr Kelly said that Bishop Buckely "wishes to apologise to the courts and the authorities for his foolishness" and in so doing accepts that the custody threshold had been passed in case. However, given the facts of his case, and his medical problems, including his heart conditions, and Chron's disease, it would allow the court to find there were wholly exceptional circumstances in the case and to suspend any term of imprisonment.
The lawyer said the bishop also acknowledged that confiscation proceedings were also pending against him, but claimed what benefit he received was calculable on one hand. The bishop, he claimed, "was a man of limited means ... not a man sitting on a mountain of cash like others involved in this scheme".
Earlier prosecution QC Richard Weir said he was aware for some time of the prospect of his pleading. He said they were "of value not least because it is his acknowledgement of his wrong doing, which must have come very hard for him".
Mr Weir also said it was accepted that the bishop was not the instigator or originator of the scam and that those who carefully and cunningly ran it could have done so without his help, although his involvement "made it cheaper and easier and much less likely to be open to detection". He was essentially a cog, rather than the wheel, but an important and necessary cog, nonetheless.
The lawyer said that as far as benefits from the scam went, the bishop was more "a receiver of fees, rather than a reaper of profits" and that the prosecution did not make the case he was a prime beneficiary.
However, Mr Weir said that it was quite and abundantly clear that the marriages he was involved in were sham marriages, marriages of convenience, and that initially while he may have been motivated by a wish to help others, afterwards it was for gain and that he had a "certain knowledge" that what he was doing was wrong.
Belfast Telegraph Digital