Man jailed for blackmailing Llanelli priest

Image caption, Costello (L) saw Father Manning as a "soft touch"

A man who blackmailed a Carmarthenshire priest by making up claims about indecent images of children has been jailed for five years.

Michael Costello, 38, of Reading, Berkshire, had inflicted "colossal damage" on Father Michael Manning, Swansea Crown Court heard.

Father Manning was so affected by the experience that he left Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, Llanelli.

Costello was found guilty of blackmail over five weeks from 7 March this year.

Judge Huw Davies, passing sentence, told Costello: "The measure of this offence is not to be found in the money, it is in the damage to the man.

"The damage you caused this man is colossal. In the process you have caused damage to the community he served."

Costello's claims had been "wholly untrue" in their nature. He had "sized up" the priest as a "soft touch", the court was told.

Costello had turned up at the door of the presbytery claiming to be destitute and Father Manning took pity on him, giving him £100.

While his back was turned, Costello stole the priest's mobile phone.

A few days later Costello turned up again and claimed the phone contained indecent images of children.

He threatened to "go to the tabloids" with the bogus claims.

Father Michael told the jury the allegation was completely untrue but he felt "vulnerable" and paid out almost £300 to Costello on two separate occasions.

Informed his superiors

The incident happened at a time of widespread concern at the Roman Catholic Church's handling of actual cases of sexual abuse.

When Costello returned for more cash, Father Manning informed his superiors.

Father Manning left the church after finding Costello breaking into the property he shared with another cleric, next to the church, in March.

Costello made renewed blackmail attempts but Father Manning had already been replaced.

A call made by Costello was traced back using the 1471 call-back facility and the information passed on to the police.

Costello was arrested several months after the incidents when he arrived in Wales by ferry from Ireland, where he was born.

He was also sentenced for two burglaries he had previously admitted carrying out in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, on the day he returned.

Costello was also found guilty of theft of a mobile phone. The judge directed a formal not guilty verdict in relation to a separate theft of £135.