Independent bishop escapes prison on sham marriages conviction

Judge says Pat Buckley ‘an important cog in the wheel of the conspiracy’

Independent bishop Pat Buckley outside Belfast Crown Court where he avoided a prison term for conducting 14 sham marriages to flout immigration law. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Independent bishop Pat Buckley outside Belfast Crown Court where he avoided a prison term for conducting 14 sham marriages to flout immigration law. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Thu, Dec 19, 2013, 16:46

Independent bishop Pat Buckley was today sentenced to three-and-half years in prison, suspended for three years, for solemnising 14 sham marriages.

At Belfast Laganside Crown Court Judge Mark Horner said it had to be “blindingly obvious” to Buckley that he was participating in “marriages of convenience”.

The offences occurred between May 2008 and September 2009 with 61-year-old Buckley from Princes Garden, Larne, Co Antrim receiving a fee of between £300 and £350 for each marriage.

Outside the court PSNI Det Supt Andrea McMullan said illegal Bangladeshi immigrants each had to pay criminals £18,000 to arrange the marriages.

The marriages mainly were between Portuguese EU women nationals and Bangladeshi men seeking residency.

“These were not victimless crimes,” said Judge Horner. “Everyone suffers when immigration laws are flouted.”

“Your actions assisted illegal immigrants in their attempt to hoodwink the authorities over many months. You were an important cog in the wheel of the conspiracy,” he added.

Judge Horner accepted that Buckley was “not essential” to the overall conspiracy. He said he was now a “convicted criminal”.

He said Buckley benefitted at a time when he was suffering financially. He was indignant when he learned how the people were treated but not so indignant as to withdraw services.

The judge told Buckley, “By acting as you did and solemnising these sham marriages you were undermining the institution of marriage and its very sanctity. This sits uncomfortably with your claims about the importance of marriage to your ministry.”

However in deciding to suspend his sentence and keep him out of prison Judge Horner said he was in no doubt that Buckley “had a genuine affinity with these illegal immigrants...who existed at the very margins of society”.

“Many of them were exploited because of their illegal status. You saw your actions as a way of assisting these desperate people. So, your motivation was mixed, albeit misguided”

He added, “You may have been a turbulent priest but you have much to be proud of for your works of charity,” said Judge Horner.

He added however, “You have lost face and standing in the community. Nothing can disguise the fact that you, as someone who professed to be a man of God, and who should have been setting an example to others of how to behave, let yourself down, let your ministry down and betrayed the trust of all those to whom you should have been providing leadership and guidance. The loss of your reputation is bound to hit you hard.”

Outside the court Buckley said this was the first time he had found himself. “On the wrong side of the law”. He said he had never sought to rotor from the “miserable circumstances” of the illegal immigrants and felt “strong compassion” for them.

“I am sorry for allowing my compassion lead me to the point of breaking the law,” he added.