Vicar guilty of 360 sham weddings

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A vicar was found guilty today of conducting hundreds of sham marriages to help illegal immigrants gain residency in Britain.

The Rev Alex Brown, 61, conducted 360 fake ceremonies at the church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, between July 2005 and July 2009.

Co-defendent Vladymyr Buchak was also convicted at Lewes Crown Court of conspiring to breach immigration laws by paying Eastern Europeans up to £3,000 each to marry Africans, mainly from Nigeria.

They were caught after the UK Border Agency investigated the bogus marriages.

The jury is still deliberating on a third defendant.

During the seven-week trial, jurors heard that Brown presided over a total of 383 marriages during the four-year indictment period, a staggering 30-fold increase on the 13 he had conducted over the previous four years.

They were told that Buchak, 33, a Ukrainian national who had himself been living illegally in the UK since at least 2004, was responsible for "cajoling and persuading" the Eastern Europeans into the marriages of convenience.

He preyed on migrant workers who were living in the area and were desperate to earn money by offering them large cash sums to wed Africans to allow them to obtain the documents to live and work in the UK.

Video: Vicar guilty of 360 sham weddings

Jurors were shown photocopies of the marriage register at the church which showed that 360 out of the 383 weddings during the period involved Eastern Europeans marrying African nationals, mainly from Nigeria.

It was also apparent that, of the hundreds of people who had got married, they all seemed to live in the surrounding streets of the parish, with 90 couples registered as living in one road alone and 52 in another.

In some instances there were even several brides and grooms claiming to live in the same house and jurors were told that most of those involved in the marriages had given false addresses.

Jurors heard that Brown was arrested on June 30 last year following a joint investigation by Sussex Police and the UK Border Agency, and both his vicarage home in Blomfield Road, St Leonards- on-Sea, and the church were searched.

There they found documents he had doctored, including the church's electoral roll plus a second, altered copy, which he had filled out to hide the dramatic increase in weddings over which he was presiding.

Buchak was arrested the same day and identity documents belonging to some of the Eastern Europeans involved in the sham marriages were found in his home in Anglesea Terrace, St Leonards, while many of their numbers were found on his mobile phone.

He declined to give evidence in the trial, while Brown and the third defendant, solicitor Michael Adelasoye, 50, both denied knowing the marriages were false when they each took to the witness box.

After hearing the verdicts for Brown and Buchak, Judge Richard Hayward gave the remaining 10 jurors a majority direction as they continue to deliberate on Adelasoye, of St Matthews Drive, St Leonards.

Jurors were told at the beginning of the trial that Brown had already pleaded guilty to a charge of solemnising a marriage according to the rites of the Church of England without banns of matrimony being duly published, while Buchak had admitted using a false passport.

Although Buchak was seen as the principal organiser of the operation, prosecutor David Walbank said there was no doubt that Brown must have been fully aware that the majority of the weddings he was conducting at the church were shams.

Giving evidence, Brown who is openly gay, insisted he only ever married couples he was sure were getting married for the right reasons and exceptions would only be made if the bride-to-be was imminently expected to give birth.

But he admitted he occasionally forgot to check the passports of foreign nationals wanting to get married to make sure they had indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

He said he became suspicious of one or two couples, but this was only because of vast differences in age between the bride and groom and put the vast increase in weddings down to word of mouth.

Outside the court, the Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings, Philip Jones, said Brown had committed a "betrayal of trust" towards his congregation and the wider community.

He said: "We are particularly sorry for those who have been deceived and hurt by the actions of Father Alex Brown. The church and the community of St Leonards-on-Sea are faced with a betrayal of trust on the part of Father Alex Brown.

"The Diocese of Chichester sets high standards and expects its clergy not only to comply with the law but also to honour the trust placed in them at their ordination and the promises made on becoming a vicar.

"We are saddened that a priest in Chichester Diocese has found himself in this position and we are conscious of the effect on the Church of St Peter and St Paul, St Leonards-on-Sea, and the concern caused to those who have in the past been properly married at that church."

He added that Brown, who was suspended from his duties after his arrest, may now face disciplinary action from the Church.

After deliberating for a further hour and three-quarters, jurors also unanimously found Adelasoye guilty of conspiring to facilitate the commission of breaches of immigration laws.

The court heard Nigerian-born Adelasoye, who specialised in immigration law, helped the African participants by advising them with their applications for residency once they were married.

He already knew many of them through his role as pastor of the Ark of Hope evangelical church in Hastings.

He claimed he did not notice that so many of them married Eastern Europeans as he said he often did not see his clients in person when submitting their applications and so did not find out the details of their marriages.

Giving evidence, he told jurors: "I have a lot of respect of the sanctity of marriage."

Judge Hayward adjourned sentencing until September 6 for pre-sentence reports to be carried out on Brown and Adelasoye as he was told they were both of previously good character.

Buchak was remanded in custody while Brown and Adelasoye were given continued bail.

But the judge added: "You have been convicted on very clear evidence of a very serious offence and the court will be considering all sentencing options.

Speaking after the verdicts, Detective Inspector Andy Cummins, of the UK Border Agency's South East region immigration crime team, said the investigation had been "unprecedented".

He said: "This was a long and complex inquiry into what was an organised and sophisticated attempt to cheat the UK's immigration laws.

"It was also an unprecedented investigation, involving a church minister who was prepared to abuse his position - and the trust placed in him by the Church and his community.

"The members of this conspiracy were happy to exploit and take advantage of other people's desperation for their own ends.

"I hope this prosecution sends out a message that we will not tolerate abuse of our immigration system. Those who facilitate sham marriages are breaking the law and will be held accountable for their actions."

Ken Goss, of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) South East complex casework unit, said it was the largest sham marriages scam that the CPS had prosecuted.

He added: "Unusually, in Reverend Brown's case, we prosecuted under the Marriage Act 1949, saying that he deliberately failed to follow the correct procedures, which had the effect of concealing the true scale of what was happening from the regular congregation.

"He also failed to make periodic returns to the church authorities, which would have alerted them to dramatic increase in the number of weddings being conducted by him.

"However, he continued to assure the church authorities that all was in order and use his knowledge to flout the checks in place.

"After his arrest, the weddings between foreign nationals at St Peter's church came to an abrupt halt.

"This painstaking investigation and successful prosecution has halted a deliberate and systematic abuse of the immigration laws of this country.

"It is an excellent example of partnership working between the UK Border Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service."

Gareth Redmond, South East area director for the UK Border Agency, said: "Tackling sham marriage is a top priority for us. We are working closely with registrars and the Church to identify suspect marriages.

"If there is evidence to suggest that a wedding may be bogus, we very quickly investigate and, where necessary, intervene to stop it happening.

"Let's be clear - a marriage certificate alone does not give foreign nationals the right to live and work in the UK. Their relationship has to be genuine. If it's not, they will face prosecution or deportation.

"Applications for the right to stay in the UK from those involved in these weddings have been on hold since the investigation began. They will now be reviewed."