A CLERGYMAN who kept hold of tens of thousands of pounds in funeral fees has been spared a prison sentence.

Andrew Hawthorne, 51 and of Arnewood Road, Bournemouth, should have paid the fees to the Winchester Diocesan Board of Finance.

However, the former assistant curate, who served at St George’s Church in Jumpers Road, Christchurch, retained some £49,059.25 between December 2009 and August 2013.

He was convicted of fraud by abuse of position and fraud by false representation after a trial at Winchester Crown Court.  During the trial, jurors heard Hawthorne did not remit fees to the Diocese of Winchester for funerals that he officiated, or declare that he had officiated them, as he was required to do.

He even took on an increasingly number of funerals, particularly at Bournemouth Crematorium, and was able to officiate funerals without the board of finance knowing they were taking place.

His crimes came to light only as a result of an investigation into grievances Hawthorne himself raised.

The fraud by false representation offence related to a later period when Hawthorne had been received into the Catholic Church, but still received some £3,097.10 in housing allowance from the Diocesan Board of Finance.

He did not notify his previous employers that he was still receiving the allowance and used it to pay off personal debts, the trial heard.

The Diocese of Winchester had suspended Hawthorne in 2012 following concerns about financial irregularities. Evidence from a subsequent clergy tribunal in 2015 was passed to Hampshire Constabulary and an investigation was launched.

Today, Hawthorne was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended for two years.

He was also ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work, and proceedings under the Proceeds of Crime Act are under way.

Detective Constable Lorraine Bell said: “This sentence comes after a long and complex investigation by Hampshire Constabulary’s economic crime unit.

“Hawthorne had previously claimed that he was entitled to keep the fees as a result of an agreement he said had been made locally.

“Witnesses from the Diocese made clear that this wasn’t the case and Hawthorne’s actions flouted rules within the church over a long period of time.

“I hope this result sends a message to those who commit fraud that their actions won’t go unnoticed and we will investigate regardless of anticipated difficulties or longevity."

Dale Sheehan for the Crown Prosecution Service said Hawthorne knew "perfectly well" that he was acting in a "criminally dishonest way".

“He claimed in his police interview that he believed he was entitled to keep this money. This was of course untrue as during his time as an ordained priest he would remit the fees," he said.

“His behaviour was not only dishonest but detrimental to the finances of the Winchester Diocese, which as a result suffered a considerable loss.”

Andrew Robinson, chief executive of the Winchester Diocesan Board of Finance, said Hawthorne's offences constitute a "serious breach of the trust placed in the clergy by churches, communities and families seeking the ministry of the church at times of great sadness and vulnerability".

"The Diocese suspended him in 2012 after we uncovered financial irregularities, and in 2015, a clergy discipline tribunal ruled he had been dishonest in retaining a very significant sum in fees," Mr Robinson said.