25th Jun, 2022

Church warden who embezzled over £30,000 avoids jail

A CHURCH warden who abused his position to steal more than £30,000 from his Coventry church’s bank accounts has escaped being jailed after it was said he had paid it all back.

Cheating Ian O’Hara had used some of the money to pay for his mother’s funeral – but had also used some to lease a car and to buy two Coventry City season tickets.

And he pleaded guilty at Warwick Crown Court to three charges of fraud in abuse of a position of trust as church warden at St Thomas’s Church in Longford, Coventry.

O’Hara, 54, of Main Road, Ansty, who also admitted a charge of deception, was sentenced to 20 months in jail suspended for 12 months and ordered to do 100 hours of unpaid work.

Prosecutor Graeme Simpson said the case had previously been adjourned after it was asserted O’Hara had paid back £21,000 of the amount he had stolen of ‘a shade under £31,000.’

“Efforts have been made to verify that, and I have a lengthy document which suggests he has paid back significantly more than that… a little over £31,000.”

Of the offences, Mr Simpson said: “He was a regular attendee at St Thomas’s church since childhood, and in 1991 he was appointed as a church warden.

“He had responsibility for all items in the church, and for the upkeep of the church; and in the event of there being no treasurer, the warden would be responsible for the finances.”

As a result, between 2005 and 2010, in the absence of a treasurer, O’Hara took on the financial responsibilities.

When O’Hara left the church in 2011, new treasurer Roger Davis carried out a review of the church’s finances – held in a Coventry Building Society account, an HSBC cheque account and an HSBC current account known as the Hawksbury Charity Account.

“Discrepancies led Mr Davis to request cheque stubs from HSBC, and it was discovered that references in the accounts to legitimate expenses had in fact been paid to the defendant.”

It was established that £10,000 had been appropriated by O’Hara, who admitted being responsible – and when enquiries revealed a further £15,000 was missing, he admitted that as well.

Initially a repayment plan was agreed with him – but when more discrepancies came to light, it was reported to the police.

The charges detail that he used £10,000 of funds from the Hawksbury Account, £16,000 from an HSBC account, and £4,794 from a Coventry Building Society account, for his own benefit.

O’Hara had also created a letter on which he had forged the signature of Father Buckby, stating that he was employed by the church on a salary of £34,000 a year, which he presented to his landlord to obtain a tenancy, said Mr Simpson.

When O’Hara was arrested, he explained that he had been unemployed from 2009 and struggling financially, so had taken money to make ends meet and to help pay for his mother’s funeral.

“Police enquiries revealed that, far from appropriating money to make ends meet, he employed a cleaner for his rented home, had a lease car at over £330 a month, and a season ticket to Coventry City,” Mr Simpson added.

Ian Speed, defending, said: “The breach of trust is fully accepted, and immediate custody is normally accepted in those circumstances, but I would ask you to see your way to suspend whatever custodial sentence you may consider appropriate.

“This man was a pillar of the community and a pillar of his own church. So why did it come about?”

Mr Speed explained that O’Hara was the full-time carer for his mother until her death in 2009.

He had worked as a training manager until being made redundant in 2006, and after another job fell through it was a shortage of money that led to him taking money from the church.

He leased a car to take his mother around, had a cleaner for his home because of the time he spent caring for his mother at her address – and the Coventry City season tickets for himself and his sister were a form of respite.

Mr Speed pointed out that matters came out after O’Hara was contacted by the funeral directors in April 2011, and he asked Mr Davis for a loan from the church to pay that fee.

He then said that if anything else came up in the accounts, he would pay it – which was what alerted Mr Davis to the fact that money had been misappropriated, and he admitted embezzling at least £21,000.

The police were only brought in when it seemed more money had gone missing, and at one stage it was said to have been as much as £67,000 – which Mr Speed said could not be substantiated, and appeared to have been ‘plucked from the air.’

He added that O’Hara believed he had paid back £21,000 and had secured a further £9,000 to repay the rest – only to hear at court that the church says it has received the full £31,000.

Sentencing O’Hara, and ordering him to pay £1,000 costs, Recorder Dean Kershaw told him: “The real problem is the huge breach of trust which took place.

“You were deliberately moving funds for your own use, and there were some items which may be seen as extravagant.

“But I take into account the fact that you have pleaded guilty and the fact, I am told by the prosecution, that you have repaid close to the full amount, and I bear in mind the work you have done for the homeless.”

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