Controversial cleric and self-appointed bishop Pat Buckley yesterday admitted involvement in 14 sham marriages, whose purpose was to flout the immigration laws.
However, Belfast Crown Court heard that the 61-year-old former Roman Catholic priest was neither an instigator or a profiteer of the scam, who allowed his naivety in thinking he was helping others to blind him from the fact that what he was doing was wrong.
The cleric, from Princes Gardens in Larne, who was to have faced a retrial in the New Year, pleaded guilty to 14 charges of conspiracy to defraud, while five others dating from 2004 to 2009 were not proceeded with. Mr Justice Horner, who said he wished to reconsider the papers in the case and to review a defence file on Bishop Buckley’s deteriorating health, will pass sentence on him next Thursday.
However, the judge was told it was accepted, given his health, and the facts, Buckley’s was a highly exceptional case which would allow the court to suspend any prison term.
Leaving court the cleric said he was not attempting to hide what he had done, but described his guilt more as technical offending.
“I haven’t an anorak over my head. I’m still wearing my collar. I’m not slinking out. I feel a bit lighter to get something that’s been hanging over me for four or five years dealt with.”
Buckley’s case had been listed on court papers yesterday simply as “a mention”, however, his defence QC Brendan Kelly asked that he be rearraigned on counts five to 18, to which the bishop then pleaded guilty.
Mr Kelly said that his ministry of over 37 years was renowned. Bishop Buckley, he claimed, was used by others and that initially he saw nothing untoward in what he was doing, but “now by his plea, readily accepts that when the marriages became more frequent and indeed frenetic their purposes became obvious....and by his plea, accepts he knew their true nature”.
However, the lawyer said the bishop received little benefit and what he did receive could be described as something akin to a normal wedding fee... “not for him the profits...not for him payments of up to £5,000 or more”.
Mr Kelly said that Bishop Buckley “wishes to apologise to the courts and the authorities for his foolishness” and in so doing accepts that the custody threshold had been passed in the case. However, given the facts of his case, and his medical problems, including his heart conditions and Crohn’s disease, it would allow the court to find there were wholly exceptional circumstances in the case and to suspend any term of imprisonment.
Earlier prosecution QC Richard Weir said he was aware for some time of the prospect of his pleading. He said they were “of value, not least because it is his acknowledgement of his wrongdoing, which must have come very hard for him”.
Mr Weir also said it was accepted that the bishop was not the instigator of the scam and that those who carefully and cunningly ran it could have done so without his help, although his involvement, “made it cheaper and easier and much less likely to be open to detection. He was essentially a cog, rather than the wheel, but an important and necessary cog nonetheless.”