Northern Ireland

Belfast man who stole from church jailed for nine months

Laganside Courts in Belfast
Image caption The case was heard at Belfast Crown Court

A convicted fraudster who used his position as treasurer to steal money from a church and a charity has been given a nine-month prison sentence.

Denis William Mackie, 58, from Thornhill Grove in Belfast, admitted stealing £37,475 from St Dorothea's Parish Church.

This was on dates between November 2009 and October 2015.

He also admitted stealing £39,190 from the Belfast Music Festival.

This was by making unauthorised cheques and then lodging them into either his own bank account or St Dorothea's, on dates between October 2014 and April 2016.

In addition, the father-of-two admitted a single offence of writing a cheque from the church's funds for £18,000 which did not clear, due to insufficient funds.

The judge was told the offences occurred while Mackie acted as treasurer for both organisations and that his offending amounted to a serious breach of trust.

'Great sense of betrayal'

The court also heard that "it will take generations" for the finances of the church to "recover", and that the future of the 110-year-old Belfast Music Festival "hangs in the balance".

A prosecutor told the court that Mackie's thefts from the church emerged after an investigation was launched due to concerns about financial irregularities.

Mackie held the voluntary position as the church's treasurer from 2005 to 2016, with the prosecutor saying "he had been part of the congregation since he was a child".

The investigation revealed that Mackie had written 40 unauthorised cheques and made several cash withdrawals from various church accounts over a prolonged period.

The prosecutor said the reverend of St Dorothea's spoke of a "great sense of betrayal" at Mackie's actions, which he described as a "calculated abuse of his position".

The cleric also said "the hurt was is palpable" amongst the congregation.

Turning to Belfast Music Festival, the prosecutor said the non-profit organisation - which promotes local talent in music, drama and performing arts - also suffered financial irregularities.

Police were alerted after it emerged a large number of cheques had been written from their account to St Dorothea's.

A total of 11 cheques were lodged into the church's account, totalling £28,360.

'Bitten by the Celtic Tiger's death'

As a result of Mackie's actions, the acting treasurer for Belfast Music Festival revealed they had to rely on "loans and donations from friends" to stay afloat, and its future is now uncertain.

The prosecutor said that as Mackie was stealing from the festival accounts, which he then lodged into St Dorothea's accounts, there was "a certain amount of robbing Peter to pay Paul".

Mackie was handed a 12-month sentence in July 2017 after he admitted that in his role as an executive director of a company that provided financial advice to the Law Society Northern Ireland, he was able to steal over £50,000 from the accounts of two clients.

A defence lawyer said the root of Mackie's offending was grounded in financial difficulties linked to both the break-up of his marriage, the recession and "desperately trying to keep his house".

He said Mackie "got bitten by the death of the Celtic Tiger in 2007" and he tried to solve his financial problems by re-mortgaging his house.

The defence lawyer also revealed that in the midst of Mackie's offending, he was "pretending to go to work" when he had no job, with this pretence due to "shame and embarrassment about the situation he got himself into".

'Motivated out of self-interest'

Mackie's barrister said that after he was released from prison for his previous offending, his client has "managed to get himself back to work" and is "re-establishing links with his family".

Regarding the money he took, the defence lawyer confirmed most of the money taken from the Belfast Music Festival was put into St Dorothea's accounts, with Mackie also using the money he stole to put his children through university.

During Friday's sentencing, the judge described Mackie's offending as the "systematic siphoning of funds" which had left the church in a "perilous financial state" and the future of Belfast Music Festival uncertain.

He said both organisations "have sustained very significant and long-lasting financial damage", and that it appeared Mackie's offending was due to "a misguided sense of wanting to keep up a pretence" and "living beyond his means."

Addressing Mackie and handing him a nine-month prison sentence, the judge told him "there is absolutely no doubt your actions were motivated out of self-interest".

After it emerged that Mackie had £1,000 in his bank account, the judge ordered that £500 be paid to both St Dorothea's and Belfast Music Festival - but accepted this limited compensation "may be a mere drop in the ocean".

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