Heysham church elder jailed after stealing £30,000 from Morecambe church which had to close

A small community church had to close its doors as a result of a thieving treasurer stealing more than £30,000, leaving it debt ridden.

By Stef Hall
Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 11:17 am

Robert Charles Clark, 42, of Middleton Road, Heysham, Morecambe, is starting a 21 month jail term after a court heard he blew much needed funds of the Christ Church United Reformed Church on Broadway, Morecambe, on shopping, fuel, cash withdrawals and 'paying off friend's credit card bills'.

The defendant, who earns £50,000 a year working for BNFL Sellafield, was made the church's treasurer after the minister retired in 2016.

The church, which was consecrated and opened for worship in 1955, was used for worship and by community groups but was already struggling financially, and it had to close in October 2018.

The former United Reform Church in Broadway. Image: Turner Lambert (Morecambe) Ltd

In May last year a planning application was submitted to Lancaster City Council to turn it into 19 high-end apartments.

Preston's Sessions House Court heard when suspicions arose, Clark, who was an elder of the church alongside his mother, had blamed the innocent former minister of the church, who retired in 2015, for the funds he stole between February 2017 and October 2018.

Alison Mather, prosecuting, said he pleaded guilty on the basis that at first he had made legitimate purchases from his own account and would transfer money from the church account, but that the amounts started to exceed what he had spent.

He also said some of the cash withdrawals were used for " handouts in the community".

From 2016 he had access to and control of church finances and was responsible for maintenance, and in these roles he was to report regularly to the elders' meeting of the church and also to the local church.

She said: " Concerns were first raised in March 2017 when he failed to provide financial documents for 2016 and he was asked numerous times and failed to do so.

"In 2017 the Synod itself was informed the insurance payment for the church had bounced.

"In Oct 2017 further efforts were made to obtain financial information and they just went unanswered - he just refused to give any assistance to them."

The North Western Synod of the United Reformed Church had to step in and pay the buildings insurance bill and a roofing repair bill.

Police and the Charity Commission were informed and in December 2017 Clark was removed from office.

The court heard he eventually supplied a password protected pen drive that auditors could not access and a fake insurance certificate.

Finally in July 2018 a fellow elder was able to forward the accounts and auditors found a high level of spending and unusual transactions for fuel, supermarket transactions and many cash withdrawals.

Defending, Tom Challinor said Clark was "absolutely ashamed" and "thoroughly appalled" of his actions.

He added: " It is an offence which is completely out of character.

"He has never been in trouble before and hitherto has led a life of respectability working in the community working as he did for the church doing a lot of good before matters went astray.

"There is no evidence of him lading a lavish lifestyle.

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"He says he felt under considerable pressure at that time and he inherited the responsibility of treasurer at a time when the church was in a lot of difficulty.

" He took on that pressure and he wanted to discharge his functions in the proper way, but regrettably things went astray and what started out as good intentions led to bad management which in turn led to criminality."

He told the court it was not a case of a thriving church with a full congregation and asked the court to consider suspending his jail term as he was an only child who lives with, and cares for, his mother and father, and who pays their rent.

An immediate jail term would mean he lost his job, their home and the Synod would receive no compensation.

However Recorder Daniel Prowse said Clark had "grossly abused the trust that was placed" in him by the church and immediate custody was necessary.

He said: " The members of the church put their trust in you to lead the church.

As the treasurer you held a privileged and responsible position."

"You had not been a treasurer for very long before you used your access to the church account to systematically steal thousands and thousands of pounds."

A spokesman for the North Western Synod of the United Reformed Church said: "The United Reformed Church North Western Synod is deeply saddened after Robert

Clark, a former Treasurer at Christ Church (United Reformed Church) in Morecambe, was found guilty of theft.

"Mr Clark became Treasurer of the church in 2016. The Synod became aware of an issue in the time leading up to the closure of the church, which had its final service on

October 14, 2018, having served the local community for 63 years.

"Once the problem was identified, the Synod reported the matter to the Police.

"We are saddened at the hurt caused to members of the congregation and the local community who used and generously supported the church over many years, who must be

feeling a sense of shock because of the theft.

"We offer our thoughts and prayers to all affected by this."

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