A CHURCH of England vicar has gone on the run as he was convicted of pocketing thousands of pounds of cash handed over as fees for weddings, funerals and graveyard memorials in a Yorkshire parish.
Simon Reynolds, 50, went out for lunch and did not come back afterwards, an official at Sheffield Crown Court said.
The jury later came back and convicted him on all charges, she said.
Reynolds, of Upper Church Lane, Farnham, Surrey, was accused of keeping fees handed over to him by bereaved families and engaged couples when he was priest-in-charge of All Saints Church in Darton, near Barnsley.
He should have handed over the money - estimated to total around £24,000 - to the diocese and the parochial church council, the court heard.
Opening the case for the prosecution last week, Tom Storey told the jury it was Reynolds’s responsibility to hand over the fees paid for weddings and funerals to the diocese.
Mr Storey said an investigation by the church, then the police, showed he had only passed on a fraction of what he should.
The prosecutor said the offences, allegedly committed between 2007 and 2013, were a “significant breach of trust”.
Reynolds was accused of four counts of theft. The first three related to fees he should have sent to the Wakefield Diocesan Board of Finance, for marriages, funeral and churchyard monuments respectively. The fourth related to fees for monuments that should have gone to the parochial church council.
The defendant denied all the charges.
Mr Storey told the jury of eight men and four women how Reynolds received a stipend as payment for his work at All Saints and another nearby church in the village of Cawthorne.
He shared services and responsibilities with the Rev Jean Deakin who was a non-stipendiary minister which meant she did not get paid and had permission to keep her fees as an income.
The prosecutor explained how suspicions about Reynolds began after he left Darton, in March 2013, to take up a new post in Surrey.
A church warden thought it was “irregular” that a fees cheque from a stonemason relating to a churchyard monument was made out personally to the former vicar.
Mr Storey said: “It was discovered that in some years the defendant had not paid any fees for weddings or funerals over to the Diocesan Board of Finance. The impression this created was that he had not conducted any weddings or funerals at the church for those years.”
But he said records of separate fees received for weddings and funerals by the parochial church council and also the church’s marriage and burial books showed that services had “clearly taken place”.
Mr Storey said the church treasurer, Anthony Warden, worked out that in 2008 there were 18 weddings in the parish and Reynolds conducted eight of these.
He said the diocese should have received a fee of £150 for each wedding - a total of £1,200 for eight. But, the prosecutor said, the defendant only handed over £555.
He said Mr Warden concluded that there was a £4,594 shortfall in fees for weddings over Reynolds’ period at the church.
“The prosecution say that it is a reasonable inference that this shortfall was money which the defendant received but which he never declared or remitted and, therefore, that he kept it for himself,” Mr Storey said.
The prosecutor said Mr Warden also found that “the defendant’s record keeping has been seriously lacking” and there were monuments in the graveyard for 23 burials but with no entry in the church’s burials book.
He said there were a further 50 cremation plaques or inscriptions in the church grounds which were similarly unrecorded.
Mr Storey said Mr Warden set about trying to estimate the amount of fees that would have been handed over for funerals, which was difficult due to different amounts being charged for different types of service.
He said this research led to a total figure of £14,600 which should have been handed over in respect of weddings and funerals combined.
The prosecutor said: “In addition, Mr Warden estimated that, over the term of the defendant’s office at Darton, a total of some £9,726 should have been paid to the church in relation to burial and cremation plaques or monuments.”
Mr Storey said that Reynolds denied to police that he took the money.
He said: “He told the police that he could not explain where the apparently missing money had gone but said that he was very disorganised and he certainly had not kept it intentionally.
“He said that his bank account overdraft was managed and that he had money in other accounts which he could draw on.
“He denied that he had stolen church funds in order to pay for his living expenses.”
The Archdeacon of Pontefract, the Venerable Peter Townley told the jury the “one thing that was never a problem” with Reynolds, was his administration of his parish.
The archdeacon said dealing with fees for weddings and funerals was “very much in the bloodstream of every parish priest”.
He added that it was “as integral to our make-up as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John”.
South Yorkshire Police said a warrant had been issued for Reynolds’ arrest and officers were actively searching for him.
It said in a statement that he had been convicted of four counts of theft, despite his absence at court.
He had appeared this morning before the jury were sent out by the judge to deliberate on their verdict, but failed to attend court this afternoon.