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'Naive' priest gave woman £150,000 of parish funds

A PRIEST who "naively" gave almost £150,000 (€175,000) of parish funds to a woman he believed to be destitute has pleaded guilty to fraud.

Fr Conleth Byrne (78) told police he paid the money to Marie Hanna from Ballycastle, Co Antrim, over a 19-month period out of "charity" after she begged him for financial help, a court was told.

The retired parish priest pleaded guilty yesterday to fraud by abuse of position just before his trial was due to begin at Downpatrick Crown Court.

Fr Byrne was a priest in Loughinisland, Co Down, when Ms Hanna, who is in her 50s, called at the parochial house in September 2007 and claimed to be in "dire need" of financial assistance, the court heard.

Ms Hanna told Fr Byrne she had just been released from prison, was homeless, had no adequate clothing, had been denied social security benefits and was in need of medication.

He gave her some money from his own savings but this marked the "beginning of a cycle" whereby Ms Hanna would come to him on a regular basis.

Over the next few months, Ms Hanna received £45,000 (€52,000) from Fr Byrne's own personal funds and from money he borrowed from friends and family to help her.

After he exhausted his own money he began to use parish funds. From early January 2008 to August 2009, Ms Hanna received between £133,000 (€155,000) and £145,000 (€169,000) from Fr Byrne, which he obtained through the cashing of cheques from the parish account.

The court heard Ms Hanna assured Fr Byrne she would repay the money. Although the relationship between them was not fully explained, there were no issues of "personal gain, blackmail or sexual favours".

Fr Byrne was arrested in late 2009 after the finance department of the Diocese of Down and Connor identified irregularities in the parish accounts.

Fr Byrne has already paid back £20,000 (€23,000) of his own money to the parish and has gathered another £9,000 (€10,000). He was released on bail to return for sentencing next month.

Irish Independent