Priest jailed for charging to bury stillborn babies jailed for funerals fiddle

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The Independent Online
A PRIEST WHO deceived grieving parishioners by overcharging for funerals was jailed yesterday for nine months after admitting 11 offences of false accounting.

The Rev Roy Hibbert even charged distraught parents to bury stillborn babies when the service should have been provided by the church free, Wolverhampton Crown Court was told. Sentencing Hibbert, of Newport, Shropshire, Judge Frank Chapman told him: "You would not dream of stealing from someone's purse or home or car, but the result of your actions is just the same." But he told the 68-year-old clergyman he believed he had worked "selflessly" for 42 years, "always putting the needs of others before his own". The priest's recent actions were a stain on his long and good career, adding: "Even ordained priests can fall victim to temptation."

The well-respected Anglican dean was arrested after members of his flock in the churches of St Nicholas, Newport, St Michael's, Chetwynd, and All Saints, Forton, said they were being overcharged for weddings and funerals.

The court was told how Hibbert, who has two children, began defrauding the church in 1986. Nigel Rumfitt QC, for the prosecution, said Hibbert overcharged for weddings and funerals, where he would make parishioners pay "vicar's extras" and lied to the diocese about his earnings from congregation contributions. Because the priest under-declared his annual earnings, he was awarded extra income from church funds. "He was engaged in a large- scale fraud, cheating not only the church itself but the parishioners and those lay parishioners who helped with the administration of the church. He enriched himself by tens of thousands of pounds."

The prosecution had alleged Hibbert had defrauded the diocese of pounds 50,000 but yesterday Judge Chapman said he accepted the figure was more likely to be around pounds 30,000.

After the hearing, the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Rev Keith Sutton, said: "It is tragic that a priest who has been highly regarded in the parishes he has served should have his ... ministry come to an end in such a regrettable manner."

A statement on behalf of the bishop said the diocese had put into place new accountancy procedures to protect clergy and parishes they served.

It added: "Fortunately, such an incident as this is extremely rare and we are resolved to ensure the church is able to handle its financial affairs in a manner in which the public can have confidence."

One of Hibbert's victims,Louisa Talbot, of Newport, Shropshire, was duped twice, paying pounds 118 for her first wedding, which should have cost pounds 37 and, when that marriage failed, a further pounds 320 for what should have been a pounds 40 blessing with her second husband.

Yesterday she said: "Who can you trust if you can't trust your vicar, if you can't trust the person who is next to godliness in your eyes?"