A farmer who abused his position as church treasurer to defraud nearly £125,000 avoided arrest.
Obert Saunderson (67) was told the decision not to put him behind bars “was borderline.”
Saunderson had previously pleaded guilty and has since paid for most of what he stole.
Antrim Crown Court was told that he had also alerted authorities to £6,000 that he had “discovered” himself.
Just over a week ago, he received a two-year prison sentence suspended for three years.
“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone identifying more stolen money and offering to pay it back,” a prosecuting attorney told the court.
Saunderson was treasurer of Glenwherry Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim.
Alarms first sounded when the church carried out an audit of two accounts, revealing a discrepancy of over £21,000.
“Church treasurer Robert Saunderson, who was church treasurer for approximately 18 years, was approached and reported that he had the missing funds in his home safe, but he had lost his key,” the attorney said.
When no money turned up, Saunderson admitted that he spent some of the money but would return it.
“At this stage, Glenwherry Presbyterian Church accepted this and thought the matter was settled.”
It was then discovered that Saunderson had stolen a much larger amount of money.
He had written checks for himself and his wife “falsifying church records regarding oil payments, mission donations, and United Appeal money.”
Saunderson was arrested, interrogated and admitted that he did not keep a record of what he had stolen.
The dairy farmer told detectives he needed the money to pay personal bills and planned to pay it back.
The court was also told that his wife had been questioned but told police she had no idea her husband was receiving church money and only found out he had after his second police interrogation. A defense attorney accepted that the offenses represented a “monumental fall from grace” but was told to “state publicly, in court, that he (Saunderson) expresses his deepest and most sincere apologies and remorse for his disgraceful conduct.”
He described how the offenses affected not only Saunderson but his entire family who “in essence became a social outcast”.
“They live in a rural community where the church and church activists were central to their lives,” the lawyer said.
“Meetings, recreational activities, it’s all over and they feel that a lot and they understand why people are so angry.”
Urging the judge not to arrest Saunderson, he added: “A lifetime of work and the legacy his father left him will never be right again…sold and sold too much immediately and the farm will be shut down.”
The court was told that Saunderson had purchased several properties and land for rent, but it turned out to be a “complete and total financial disaster … an additional millstone around his neck” and it was then that he began receiving money from the church.
Judge Neil Rafferty said it is clear that Saunderson “is ashamed and deeply regrets what he has done and the loss of his reputation within the church and community at large.” He said Saunderson deserved credit for his order, the fact that he returned the money and the way he alerted authorities about the extra money.
The judge told him, “The reality, Mr. hand. You almost escaped an immediate prison sentence, and again, you just have to blame yourself for that.”