Priest jailed for stealing to feed gambling addiction

DAVID CLARKSON
Last updated 17:00 27/02/2013
priest
DAVID CLARKSON
"ASHAMED": Father John William Fitzmaurice leaves court after his guilty pleas.

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A Catholic priest who stole $149,000 from the church to feed a poker machine addiction has been jailed for two years and three months.

Father John William Fitzmaurice, who worked as a priest in the Christchurch diocese for 34 years, had admitted eight charges of dishonestly using documents and obtaining money by deception.

He was sentenced by Judge John Macdonald in the Christchurch District Court after hundreds of dishonest transactions involving writing out cash cheques which were paid into his account, or withdrawals from automatic teller machines.

Defence counsel Jonathan Eaton told the judge: "He stands before you for sentencing truly ashamed and deeply remorseful for the harm he has caused."

Fitzmaurice was aware of the breach of trust towards the bishop, the church, parishioners, family, and friends.

Crown prosecutor Marcus Zintl said it had cost the church $31,000 in investigation fees to uncover Fitzmaurice's offending. Reparation of $149,000 was sought but the church was realistic in acknowledging Fitzmaurice's inability to pay.

Zintl said the offending involved 735 separate acts of dishonesty. It was highly calculated and premeditated offending.

"The offender was a man of faith, but the very faith that was placed in him by the Catholic church and the community, he has betrayed."

Eaton said a report described the offending as "a spiralling vocational and emotional meltdown over several years".

Fitzmaurice had become increasingly isolated and lonely. His visits to the poker machines had escalated into a pathological addiction. His relationship with another problem gambler led to small scale dishonest acts to fuel his behaviours.

He had faced public humiliation because of announcements in the church and in the media, said Eaton.

He had no assets at all and had only earned a modest income from the church.

"What his future holds in terms of his relationship with the church remains to be seen."

He could not continue to work in Christchurch, but an "olive branch" had been extended by the Bishop of Auckland, and he might be able to continue his work there.

Judge Macdonald said he would make no reparation order because of Fitzmaurice's inability to pay, but if he became able to pay later, the judge said he expected he would do so.

The betrayal of trust had caused a scandal for his fellow priests and members of the Catholic community. He noted there was continuing support and compassion for Fitzmaurice, voiced in references and letters or support.

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"I understand how ashamed you must be," said the judge. It was surprising that he had not sought help earlier.

Eaton said after the sentencing that he would be applying for Fitzmaurice's release on bail pending the hearing of an appeal.

Later in the afternoon, Judge Macdonald refused to grant bail for the appeal which is likely to be heard in April.

- The Press

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