A Roman Catholic priest who stole £50,000 from his parish after falling in love with his housekeeper and lavishing gifts on her family has been spared jail.
Father John Reid quadrupled spending when he took charge of St Cuthbert’s Church in Chester-le-Street, County Durham and started stealing money donated from kind-hearted church goers.
The portly, white-haired 70-year-old priest but spent £1,200 on a canteen of William Turner cutlery, was a member of the Sunday Times Wine Club and spent £80 on oysters and smoked salmon while holidaying in Scotland.
But he avoided prison after a hearing at Durham Crown Court after agreeing to pay back £50,000 within three months.
He was handed an 18-month suspended sentence at Durham Crown Court after he admitted fraud by abuse of position at a previous hearing.
Judge Prince said his behaviour had been ‘out of character’.
The court heard that Fr Reid told police he had fallen in love with his housekeeper, Gillian Leddy, and saw her daughters, Veronica and Alice, as ‘the family that he never had’.
The court heard how he bought the daughters two properties each as well as a car and funded two businesses.
Jane Waugh, prosecuting, said concerns were raised by parishioners in January 2013 about how finances were being handled.
The priest, now living in Stockton, had joined the parish in 2009 and accounts showed spending increased fourfold in some aspects, and doubled overall after he took over.
‘In particular, there had been dramatic increases within the categories of general administration, housekeeping and hospitality,’ said Ms Waugh.
‘This would appear to be because Gillian, Alice and Veronica Leddy, who are mother and daughters and close friends of the defendant from his previous parish at Willington, were effectively living at the presbytery and the defendant’s expenditure increased to reflect the fact that he was helping to support them financially.
‘This additional expenditure was claimed back from the Church, in expenses, by the defendant.’
When the priest was replaced temporarily, his successor said the presbytery was ‘in a terrible condition’.
Ms Waugh said: ‘It was dirty and untidy with large quantities of alcohol present.
‘(His replacement) describes the presbytery as looking more like a family home than a presbytery.
‘There was female clothing in the bedrooms and it was apparent that females had been staying there.’
Passports belonging to the Leddys were found alongside his in the safe.
The priest appointed Veronica Leddy as co-signatory of the parish chequebook and he began running the church without a finance committee of parishioners.
The court was told that led to a split in the church, with some backing the priest and others angry at how he was running affairs.
Ms Waugh said: ‘The witness Nora McKie, a lifetime parishioner, stated that the defendant had a lifestyle not typical of any priest she had known, and that the reason she took action to highlight these serious concerns was to protect those people, who with total trust were giving money to the Church.’
Parishioners became concerned about the priest asking for blank cheques to be signed off, with Fr Reid handing over ‘bags of receipts’ without adequate information about what they referred to.
An investigation involving the Bishop of Newcastle was launched and auditors were brought in, highlighting serious concerns.
Fr Reid accepted taking the Leddys out to eat ‘a few times a week’. Over the four years he was at St Cuthbert’s, his basic remuneration should have totalled £31,455.
But he disbursed to himself more than £113,000 from parish cheques. He wrote more than 150 cheques to himself, most of which were co-signed by Veronica Leddy.
The court heard that he made claims to pay his credit card bills.
Following the findings by the auditors, a serious incident report was made to the Charity Commission by the diocese, and the matter referred to the police for a full investigation.
After he was removed from the post, sterling and euros totalling £2,349 were found in the safe. Fr Reid said this was ‘his holiday money’.
Ms Waugh said when he was arrested ‘it appeared that the defendant was virtually living as a family with Gillian Leddy and her daughters, Veronica and Alice’.
During the inquiry, it emerged that the priest gave property and money to the Leddys on a ‘large scale’, buying two homes each for Veronica and Alice, a car each and financed a cafe business for them.
He also gave them both substantial amounts of cash. But Ms Waugh said the money for these gifts came from an inheritance of the priest, not the result of fraud.
In an interview, he said: ‘The parish keeps me’ and ‘Ultimately, I’m in charge of it, so I can spend it.’
Christopher Knox, defending, spoke of 15 character references and said the priest expressed ‘great distress, regret and apology’.
Judge Prince expressed a hope that the fracture within the parish between those who supported the priest and those who did not would soon mend.
He was persuaded to suspend the sentence because of his good character.
He also accepted that the priest was not fully equipped to deal with the modern priesthood, having heard he was bad at paperwork.
‘You have lived an exemplary life dedicated to the service of others,’ he said.
He described the ‘aberration’ as one that ‘persisted for over 40 months’.
And he said: ‘Your behaviour was wholly out of character.
‘What led you astray so late in life must remain a matter of mere conjecture.
‘Whilst of course the court and parishioners must deprecate your dishonesty, it does not otherwise detract from your creditable record in other fields.’
He suspended the jail term for two years, with no other conditions.