North East priest who stole Â£50,000 from parish after falling in love with housekeeper is spared jail
A Roman Catholic priest who stole Â£50,000 from his parish after falling in love with his housekeeper and lavishing gifts on her family has been spared jail.
Judge Christopher Prince said Father John Reid's fraud was an "aberration" which persisted over 40 months while he was in charge of St Cuthbert's Church, in Chester-le-Street.
The white-haired 70-year-old priest was handed an 18-month suspended sentence at Durham Crown Court after he admitted fraud by abuse of position at a previous hearing.
He has agreed to pay back the Â£50,000 within three months.
The court heard he spent Â£1,200 on a canteen of cutlery, was a member of the Sunday Times Wine Club and spent Â£80 on oysters and smoked salmon while holidaying in Scotland.
When Reid was replaced, his successor found it was dirty and littered with alcohol bottles, the court was told.
Jane Waugh, prosecuting, said concerns were raised by parishioners in January 2013 about how finances were being handled.
The priest 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, house keeping and hospitality," she said.
She added that this was largely because a mother and her two daughters, who he knew from his previous parish at Willington, near Crook, were effectively living at the presbytery.
During the subsequent inquiry, it emerged the priest gave property and money to the women on a "large scale", buying two homes each for the daughters, a car each and financing a cafe business for them each.
He also gave them substantial amounts of cash each. But Ms Waugh said the money for these gifts came from an inheritance of the priest, not the result of fraud.
In an interview, the portly, white-haired priest said: "The parish keeps me", and: "Ultimately, I'm in charge of it, so I can spend it."
Ms Waugh said "clearly his household accounts suggest that a family was being supported by the parish, not just a parish priest".
Christopher Knox, defending, spoke of 15 character references and said the priest expressed "great distress, regret and apology".
Judge Prince heard Reid, now living at a church presbytery in Stockton, will pay his diocese Â£50,000 in full, plus Â£5,000 for the cost of the audit, within three months.
He said: "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."