Tragedy for 'pillar of the community' who stole €200,000 from school, spent it on worthy causes -- and now is left a broken woman
A SCHOOL treasurer and "pillar of the community" who stole more than €200,000 from a primary school to "gain kudos with fellow parishioners" by spending it on good causes has been given a five-year suspended sentence.
Betty Barry (54) used the money to make large donations to her local church, the Girl Guides and other community groups in Ringsend in Dublin.
She also paid for flowers for the funerals of many of the local residents, for pilgrimages to Lourdes, the ordination celebrations for a new priest and for holidays and cruises for her family and friends.
Barry, of Whelan House, Ringsend, pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to 16 sample charges of theft from St Patrick's National School, Ringsend, and one of forgery between August 12, 2006 and May 18, 2010.
She has no previous convictions and yesterday was given the suspended sentence after Judge Martin Nolan said she had already lost "her reputation, her peace of mind and probably a lot of friends".
The court heard that Barry had unsupervised and sole access to the school bank accounts during her term as treasurer on the board of management from 1997 to 2010.
She started using the school's cheque book in 2006, as she had none of her own, initially to pay her own household bills and with the intention of lodging the cash at a later stage.
Garda Brian Hunt said Barry had sole responsibility for issuing cheques for the school until 2010 when a co-signature, Fr McDonagh, was required. Barry then started to forge the priest's signatures on the cheques to withdraw the funds.
The offence came to light in January 2011 when a cheque bounced. Barry was contacted and she later arrived at the school and handed the principal the cash to cover the cheque.
The principal went to the bank to lodge the funds and found the account was overdrawn by €25,000.
Sean Guerin, defending, told the judge that when Barry realised she could use the cheque book without detection, her use of it "snowballed".
Gda Hunt told prosecutor Melanie Greally there was a total of 284 unauthorised transactions over a four-year period.
He said the funds were used in a variety of ways -- including €15,000 on flowers for the funerals of deceased members of the community, €35,000 to the local church and parish, €25,000 to the local Girl Guides and €15,000 to other community groups.
The accused also paid for an educational course for a relative and had agreed to pay another family member's mortgage.
Gda Hunt said Barry was an audit assistant for a firm of accountants and used some of the funds to pay the Collector General fines incurred by clients of that firm after Barry filed documents late.
The remainder of the funds was spent on holidays for her friends and family to Rome, Budapest and Venice.
Gda Hunt said that although just more than €200,000 was withdrawn from the account, Barry had lodged €100,000 back in.
Judge Nolan said Barry suffered from human failing, "an ambition to be a person of importance", and to help others more than she could.
He said she stole the money in the hope of gaining "some kudos with fellow parishioners" but said the sad thing was that she did not realise she had a great reputation in the Ringsend community already.
Judge Nolan accepted that Barry was "a very good person with an impeccable record" who had succumbed to temptation.
"Does she deserve to go to prison? It is a close-run thing. She has lost a lot by her mere conviction, her reputation, her peace of mind and probably a lot of friends," Judge Nolan said.
He said Barry's suspended term was conditional on her paying the school €25,000, keep the peace, and be of good behaviour for five years.
Father Fergal McDonagh, local priest and chairman of the board for the school, told Mr Guerin that Barry forged his signature on 36 cheques.
He said Barry had been involved in "almost everything" in the parish and locals were dependant on her.
Fr McDonagh described Barry as having "a huge standing in the local community" and said since the offences came to light, he has noticed a physical change in her.
"She is a broken person. She is lonely and sad. The parish has lost a great volunteer," he said.
He told Ms Greally that the bank has reimbursed the school for all the cash that was paid out on the basis of the forged cheques and the school's insurance company has covered the shortfall.
Mr Guerin said much of the money Barry spent was of "no personal benefit" to her but accepted she did it in the "silent hope" of getting recognition for contributing to her local community.
He said "the tragedy of the case" was Barry had no need to do this as she was already recognised as "a pillar of the community".
Mr Guerin said his client had received €35,000 on leaving the accountancy firm she had worked in for 36 years.
She presented this in court as a token of her remorse.