Northern Ireland

Pat Buckley admits sham marriage charges

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Media captionPat Buckley admitted involvement in 14 sham marriages

Independent bishop Pat Buckley has admitted involvement in 14 sham marriages whose purpose was to flout immigration laws.

However, the court heard that Mr Buckley, 61, of Princes Gardens, Larne, County Antrim, was neither an instigator nor a profiteer of the scam.

Belfast Crown Court heard he had allowed his naivety in thinking he was helping others, to blind him from the fact that what he was doing was wrong.

He will be sentenced next Thursday.

Five other charges dating from 2004 to 2009 were not proceeded with.

Pat Buckley's case had been listed as a mention but his defence counsel, Brendan Kelly QC, asked that he be rearraigned and he then pleaded guilty.

Mr Kelly said that his ministry spanning more than 37 years, was renowned, and that he had been officiating at weddings both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, as well as abroad.

He said those who used his services had often struggled or had difficulties getting married.

Mr Kelly said his client was motivated by compassion and idealism and, initially, saw nothing untoward in what he was doing.

It was only as the marriages became more frequent and frenetic that their purposes became obvious and, by his plea, he accepts that he knew their true nature, Mr Kelly said.

He said Pat Buckley received little benefit and what he did receive could be described as something akin to a normal wedding fee, as opposed to a profit of £5,000 or more.

'Cheaper and easier'

Earlier, counsel for the prosecution, Richard Weir QC, said he was aware for some time that Pat Buckley might plead guilty.

This was of value, he said, "not least because it is his acknowledgement of his wrong doing, which must have come very hard for him".

The prosecution accepted that Pat Buckley was not the instigator of the scam, although his involvement, "made it cheaper and easier".

However, Mr Weir said it was abundantly clear that these were sham marriages.

In court on Thursday, Mr Justice Horner said he wished to reconsider the papers in the case and to review a defence file on Pat Buckley's deteriorating health.

The judge was told that it was accepted, given his health and the facts, that this was "a highly exceptional case" that would allow the court to suspend any prison term.

Speaking outside Laganside Court after the case was heard, Pat Buckley 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," he said.

"I feel a bit lighter to get something that's been hanging over me for four or five years dealt with. But obviously, I have a heaviness of heart because technically, at 61, I now have a criminal conviction."