THE Catholic Church has returned £10,000 to the Government after it was wrongly awarded a coronavirus small business grant for one of its properties.
The cash was paid into the Larne parish account by the Department for Economy on April 3.
It was only when the matter was raised by independent Bishop Pat Buckley, who has been at loggerheads with the church hierarchy for years, that the mistake was realised.
When pressed further by Sunday Life, the Down and Connor Diocese accepted the "error" and paid back the money.
Bishop Buckley, who lives at the Rectory building in Larne which is owned by the church, spoke of his shock after receiving a confirmation letter saying the £10,000 had been paid to him.
He described as "immoral" any attempt by any religious organisation to cash in on the virus crisis.
"I was stunned because I had not applied for the Covid-19 small business grant," said Bishop Buckley. "
"What was also of concern is that the grant was in my name and address, but the bank details it was paid to were those of the Catholic parish in Larne.
"The obvious question for me was, if my ministry here is 'business', then why did the grant go the Larne parish and not me?"
At first a spokesman for the Down and Connor Diocese said it was not aware of any Covid-19 small business grant applications being made.
But 24 hours later, after being told this newspaper had confirmation the £10,000 had been lodged in the Larne parish account, he admitted a "mistake".
The spokesman said: "The Diocese of Down and Connor can confirm that on April 3 as part of the Government's Covid-19 response, an automatic small business grant of £10,000 from the Department for Economy was received by the parish of Larne in error. Within the diocese, this was an isolated incident.
"Having become aware of this mistake, the Diocese of Down and Connor immediately contacted Land and Property Services to draw this oversight to their attention and to arrange the safe return of the grant."
In earlier correspondence with Bishop Buckley, the parish priest for Larne, Fr Francis O'Brien (below), insisted he had no knowledge of the £10,000 Covid-19 small business grant application.
He said: "I am unaware of any application for a grant of any kind but have forwarded your correspondence to the Diocesan Finance Office for their attention."
The Government's Coronavirus business support grant Scheme offers a one-off payment of £10,000 to firms currently in receipt of small business rate relief, subject to a number of exclusions.
This is to help them through the financial crisis caused by Covid-19.
Northern Ireland's other main churches, the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland, told Sunday Life that none of their parishes had applied to the scheme.