Home Page Exoneration of rector still leaves tragedy behind for town 07/02/17

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Hart of the Matter

A dark cloud has hung over Haverhill for the past three years, centred on the parish church of St Mary, but spreading wider through the community. Yesterday it was lifted.

After two week-long trials, a jury at Ipswich Crown Court finally took just an hour and a half to return a unanimous not guilty verdict exonerating Haverhill’s rector, the Rev Ian Finn, of a charge of fraud.

The story began almost exactly three years ago when worshippers at St Mary’s Church were stunned to hear a statement read out in the church before Sunday morning service by the Archdeacon of Sudbury, the Ven David Jenkins, telling them their rector had been suspended due to accounting anomalies which, he said, the rector ‘claimed’ were errors.

A charge of defrauding the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich of thousands of pounds was brought (NOT of defrauding his own church, as has been widely reported over the past three years – the errors, if anything, benefited his own church of St Mary’s).

The accounting system involved, for passing fees for funerals and wedding banns on to the diocese, proved so complex that even the police failed to reach a correct figure for the shortfall. An accountant took 40 hours to come up with the same figure twice, and even that proved to be wrong when a forensic accountant, accustomed to work on major fraud trials, was brought in by the defence and eventually came up with a final figure of £12,707.

Fr Ian had, the day he had discovered his mistakes, made a calculation of his own - over £18,000, which was nearly 50 per cent too high - and sent the money off to the diocese. The court heard the over-payment had still not been returned to him.

Details of what had happened began to surface, but they were not in the public domain until the case went to trial at Ipswich in 2015. After the jury failed to reach a verdict, a second trial was pursued, which ran last week and concluded yesterday with the unanimous verdict clearing Fr Ian.

During the trials a picture emerged of a priest whose life and work in the parishes of Haverhill and Withersfield since 2007, and before that around Wickhambrook for eight years, were more than exemplary.

Witness after witness described a man who engendered huge respect and admiration. Among these were Fr Ian’s curate from 2008-2012, the Rev Janice Ward, who is now a vicar on the Isle of Man; the Rev Graham Owen, the priest ‘parachuted in’ to cover the work in Haverhill during Fr Ian’s suspension; a priest from Lancashire who had known Fr Ian for more than 20 years; the head of Castle Manor Academy Vanessa Whitcombe; and Rothgar Paintin, director of the area’s longest-established funeral directors.

All testified to Fr Ian’s exemplary work in the most demanding of parishes and to his complete integrity in all dealings they had ever had with him. Every day in court between a dozen and 20 people attended the public gallery to support Fr Ian, from St Mary’s in Haverhill and in Withersfield - including two past mayors of Haverhill - and from his previous parishes in the Wickhambrook area,.

When the verdict was given, a spontaneous mix of applause and tears broke out, which the judge appeared to view with a degree of indulgence.

Even the prosecuting counsel had to admit the deep respect in which Fr Ian was held and the admirable ministry he had achieved, being forced to fall back on the argument that it was still ‘not impossible’ for someone to fall from grace.

The case was undermined by the fact that Fr Ian had, during the years 2007-2014 in which it was alleged the fraud had taken place, donated to the church, and under-claimed in expenses, considerably more than the total it was claimed he had come by dishonestly.

The court heard his mistakes were often in the wrong direction, leading him to over-pay. It also heard that he had asked the new treasurer of the parochial church council in 2014, who was a far more experienced person in accounting than had been the case before, to check his return. Errors were found, with two funeral fees missing and one paid for twice, which was what led to Fr Ian being reported by his curate the Rev Manette Crossman.

If he had ensured that return was correct, no one would ever have discovered all the errors he had made down the previous seven years.

Judge David Goodin, who presided over both trials, said in summing up that the defendant had clearly been a most exemplary priest, working over and above what was required in a most challenging parish of nearly 30,000 people. He was a man, the judge said, who was not over-concerned with material things. From his bank statements one could see that his wants were few.

Judge Goodin asked the jury what a priest was for. Was it to be a book-keeper for the diocese, or was it to minister to the needs of his flock? The court had heard the ‘flock’ stretched widely beyond the regular congregation, when it came to the joys and sorrows of life such as weddings, christenings and funerals.

The judge implied several criticisms of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. He suggested the jury might consider the shortcomings of the diocese’s system for collecting the fees involved, and that no priests received any accountancy training whatsoever. He also highlighted the fact that the diocese had still not returned Fr Ian’s overpayment. He said this had not been much referred to in the trial but he found it extraordinary.

What happens next is unknown. Fr Ian has been the first to admit the errors, devastating to him, have contributed to the situation in no small way. His administration of financial affairs, on which he said he spent about one per cent of his time, was described variously during the trial as ‘dysfunctional’, ‘chaotic’ and ‘not fit for purpose’.

It is interesting to see two conflicting statements that have come out since the verdict. One, from the Bishop of Dunwich on behalf of the diocese, could have been used in almost exactly the same form if Fr Ian had been convicted, and hints at ‘further action’ from the diocese, presumably by trying to haul him before a church court, where they might be able to control a more favourable outcome.

The other was from our MP, Matthew Hancock, who said Fr Ian had been subjected to a cruel ordeal, and he hoped he could now rebuild his life, which had always been lived in the service of others. He said it was abundantly clear the case should never have been brought and that lessons should be learned not to waste the expensive time of the legal system on such cases. Not much common ground there.

The wider tragedy for Haverhill is that, in all likelihood, the town has lost a rector of rare ability in terms of his ministry, much-loved, much-admired, much-respected and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replace with someone of the same charisma and commitment from the upcoming crop within the Church of England.


David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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