Sham wedding bishop avoids jail

Published Thursday, 19 December 2013
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Controversial cleric and self-appointed bishop Pat Buckley has avoided a prison term for conducting sham marriages whose purpose was to flout the immigration laws.

The 61-year-old former Catholic priest from Princes Gardens, Larne, helped Bangladeshi men marry Portuguese women in Northern Ireland.

On Thursday at a court in Belfast he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years, suspended for three years.

Mr Justice Mark Horner said Buckley was an important cog in the wheel of the conspiracy but suspended the prison sentence after hearing his long list of medical problems - including treatment for HIV.

Last week he admitted involvement in fourteen sham marriages and pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud between 28 May 2008 and 2 September 2009.

The court was told that the cleric had allowed his naivety in thinking he was helping others to blind him from the fact that what he was doing was wrong.

On Thursday Mr Justice Horner told Buckley: "What you did was wrong. You committed a series of serious crimes, which you did for financial reward."

"All your life you have sided with the downtrodden and you have provided solace to people on the margins of society. You have lost you reputation and this is bound to have hit you hard."

He said Buckley was paid a fee of between £300 and £350 per ceremony at a time when he was experiencing some financial difficulties.

The ceremonies were between EU and non-EU nationals who were seeking residency.

The judge said: "The crimes to which you pleaded guilty are not victimless crimes, nor do they constitute technical infringements of the criminal law."

Speaking after sentence was past, Bishop Buckley said: "I am 61 years old and this is the very first time in my life that I have found myself on the wrong side of the law.

"These proceedings began by me wholeheartedly assisting the police in 2010. I have never been arrested during this process, I have never been the subject of a personal or home search and I have never been detained.

"I have never sought to profit from the miserable circumstances in which the non-EU participants in this case have found themselves. I have a genuine affinity with the poor. I do feel strong sense of compassion for those who must live outside the EU in profound poverty and appalling circumstances."

He added: "I am glad that the judge in the prosecution accepts that I have provided solace to the outcasts and that my door is always open to the downtrodden.

"I am sorry for allowing my compassion to bring me to the point of breaking the law - the laws that our society agree upon."

I did not intend to offend my fellow citizens, but I accept that I have, and again for that I want to say that I am sorry.

Bishop Pat Buckley

Three Bangladeshi men who were prepared to give evidence against Buckley were also given suspended sentences on Thursday for their role in the scam.

Detective Superintendent Andrea McMullan from Organised Crime Branch said the sentences were the result of an investigation which spanned three continents which lasted over four years.

She said that a sham marriage service had even been advertised in Hong Kong and mainland China for illegal immigrants already living in the UK, which included the provision of Portuguese or UK citizens for marriage to illegal immigrants for a fee of £18,000.

"In completing sham marriages, the criminals adopted a sophisticated plan. Essentially, an illegal immigrant would be provided with a 'bride' by a contact within the Portuguese community in Northern Ireland," DSI McMullan explained.

"A large number of these marriages involved men from the Bangladeshi/Pakistani community. These men had been convinced that the sham marriages would regularise their illegal status in the UK.

This investigation uncovered the systematic abuse of the EU immigration system in which criminals, some from a professional background, provided false documentation for work permits.

Detective Superintendent Andrea McMullan

She continued: "To complete the sham marriages, the couples would attend registrar's offices in Dundalk and Drogheda. They would then book a room at a hotel and a meeting would be arranged with Bishop Pat Buckley, who would, for a fee, agree to marry the participants.

"It was often only on the wedding day that a bride and groom would meet for the first time along with several other couples who were lined up to be married on the same day.

"The couples would often act as each other's witnesses in a 10-minute service overseen by Bishop Buckley. At the end of the 'ceremony' all of the parties would go their separate ways."

Organised Crime Branch officers tracked criminal money across three continents and restrained assets valued at £6million.

A total of 23 people have been convicted or pleaded guilty to a range of offences as part of the investigation and custodial sentences amounting to 42 years have been handed out.

A further 10 suspects have also been referred to Home Office immigration enforcement.

Police also released pictures of two suspects who remain at large, 32-year-old Shek Hasan (below), who is believed to be in Bangladesh and Ali Ahmed who is pictured at a sham wedding conducted by Buckley (top picture, sitting).

Shek Hasan

© UTV News
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7 Comments
ian in ards wrote (125 days ago):
he knew it was wrong to marry people who did not even know each other and he still did it, he deserved jail as he assisted these people in breaking the immigration law.no wonder the government does not know who is in the country or what they are up to.
Tomc in Belfast wrote (125 days ago):
How this "sham" priest is not locked up I'll never know. It would appear that the judge was speaking about a completely different person.
John in Belfast wrote (125 days ago):
Suspended for 3 years, oh yes thatll surely do him a world of good! This place seriously needs to sort itself out and actually punish criminals especially of this sort!
Margaret Hawthorne in Espana wrote (126 days ago):
I have known Pat Buckley for a number of years. I have always found him to be kind, sensitive and caring. I feel that he may have been duped into marrying these people. I wish him well and may he now move on having learnt from his mistakes. Take care, god bless you Pat.
Michael Monaghan in Belfast wrote (126 days ago):
See why the catholic church got rid of this obscene man .. Hes a law onto himself .. Its a disgrace what he's done and got away with ... Motivated not by selflessness more like greed !
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