Priest's fall from grace after fraud admitted

CAROLINE KING AND DAVID CLARKSON
Last updated 05:00 12/12/2012
Father John Fitzmaurice at a requiem mass for Bishop John Cunneen at St Mary's in 2011.
DEAN KOZANIC/Fairfax NZ
THEN: Father John Fitzmaurice at a requiem mass for Bishop John Cunneen at St Mary's in 2011.
priest
DAVID CLARKSON
NOW: Father John William Fitzmaurice leaves court after his guilty pleas.

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In the space of 16 months, Father John William Fitzmaurice went from being a highly respected Catholic priest to a convicted fraudster.

His guilty pleas yesterday to six charges in the Christchurch District Court marked the sad end to an investigation that began in August 2011.

While serving as an administrator at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and at Addington's Sacred Heart Parish, Fitzmaurice defrauded the church of $127,650.

Just what Fitzmaurice did with all the money remains unclear, but yesterday Catholic Bishop of Christchurch Barry Jones told The Press : "I understand there was gambling involved."

The charges related to Fitzmaurice using 242 cheques drawn on the cathedral and Addington parish accounts, which were either cashed or paid into his account. He also admitted dishonestly making 358 automatic teller withdrawals totalling $54,430.

It all began to unravel for Fitzmaurice in September last year when Jones had a letter read at masses throughout the city.

In it, the bishop said: "It is now with great sadness that I inform you that I have placed the matter with the police. I took this step because of financial irregularities in areas for which [Fitzmaurice] has been responsible.

"The police will follow their own procedures and make their own investigations."

At the time, Fitzmaurice was suspended as a priest.

For more than four decades, Fitzmaurice served the church.

He was well-respected in the Christchurch community, strongly contributing to the lives of his parishioners.

"That's why people are so disappointed," Jones said yesterday.

"It's a great letdown for lots and lots of people. His fellow priests and parishioners and Catholics in general are most alarmed."

The stolen money had come from donations to the church and the large financial loss had come as a "big hit", he said.

"He was in a position of great responsibility and great trust. The seventh commandment is ‘thou shall not steal', that's one of the things we assume is that a priest can be trusted with money."

Despite what had happened, Jones said the church supported Fitzmaurice, covering his legal fees and counselling costs.

"When a priest is ordained for a diocese, that diocese takes responsibility for that person for the rest of their lives.

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"He's our responsibility. It's like having someone in your family," he said.

Judge Jane Farish remanded Fitzmaurice on bail for sentencing on February 27.

She called for a pre-sentence report and a report on his suitability for home detention, and his ability to pay reparations to the church.

Reparations on the charges he has admitted total $127,650.

But Fitzmaurice's fate could be bleak.

Law Society Canterbury-Westland branch president Allister Davis said the priest could face a nine to 15-month imprisonment.

"He's looking at a term of imprisonment, unless he pays reparation, of course. He was in a position of trust . . . that's an aggravating feature."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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