Disgraced priest jailed for fraud

A disgraced Catholic priest jailed for slotting $150,000 of parish cash into pokie machines could still work for the church once released from prison.

Father John Fitzmaurice, 57, was a trusted administrator and clergyman at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and Addington's Sacred Heart Parish in Christchurch for 34 years.

But while he stood in front of his diocese as a well-respected church leader, Father Fitzmaurice was quietly siphoning funds from the church.

He wrote hundreds of cheques and paid them into his personal bank account.

The money - $149,000 over five and a half years - was used to support his spiralling gambling addiction.

Today, at Christchurch District Court he was sentenced to two years and three months behind bars after pleading guilty to eight fraud charges that Judge John Macdonald said amounted to "sustained criminal conduct".

Crown prosecutor Marcus Zintl said it was ironic that Father Fitzmaurice was a man of faith, and the faith people had in him that was betrayed.

But church leaders, who said the long-serving clergyman's fall from grace had caused "great scandal" for his fellow priests and Catholic community, vowed to support him "until the day he died".

"He's part of the church family. We'll support him all the way," said Bishop Barry Jones outside court.

Defence counsel Jonathan Eaton said the man who joined the seminary at 17 and became a priest at 23, could still work for the church he had devoted his life to.

While he could never work in Christchurch again, Mr Eaton said an "olive branch" had been extended by the Bishop of Auckland.

He also indicated they would be challenging the sentence and applying for Father Fitzmaurice's release on bail pending the hearing of an appeal.

His client's descent into addiction came when he became "isolated and lonely" about seven years ago.

Father Fitzmaurice began dabbling in playing pokie machines.

It escalated into a pathological addiction, which Mr Eaton highlighted afflicts many New Zealanders.

The pokies led to his repeated pattern of writing cheques which he cashed directly into his personal bank account.

When church leaders found large sums of money were missing, they spent $31,000 on hiring a private investigator.

The investigator began probing bank accounts and the trail soon led to Father Fitzmaurice who admitted the offending.

After murmurings in September 2011 that Fitzmaurice had been suspended for "financial irregularities", Bishop Jones confirmed the shocking news by having a letter read at masses throughout the city.

Bishop Jones today expressed "disappointment" that his once-trusted priest had been jailed, having pleaded to the court for him to receive home detention.

He was also saddened to lose the services of "a very able and gifted" priest.

"His offending has caused great scandal - he had a very high reputation amongst people and people were very shocked to hear this had happened.

"But he's exercised an excellent ministry for over 30 years, and now we don't have that from him anymore."

The church will continue to support him through his "turmoil", and after counselling, he expected Father Fitzmaurice to come out of prison "stronger".

They'd paid his living costs, covered his legal fees and counselling costs, and since the convicted fraudster had no assets or any savings were realistic that he couldn't pay any reparation.

But Bishop Jones said: "Some kind of symbolic reparation when he's in a position to do so... we'd expect that."

An appeal against the sentence is likely.

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