A CROOKED accountant who stole more than £500,000 from the Stourbridge church and religious charity where he was treasurer has been jailed for five years.
Judge John Maxwell at Wolverhampton Crown Court told Stephen Methuen his crimes were "despicable" and they had "sorely tested the faith" of members of the congregation who were "horrified" to find he had stolen the money - some of which had been collected for homeless, hungry orphans.
He said £118,000 had been raised by the Christian International Relief Mission to help struggling children in the Philippines in a "desperate state of poverty”.
The judge added: "We are all familiar with employees who steal from employers but when the victim is a charitable trust the consequences are far greater."
He told Methuen, who used the cash to prop up his ailing accountancy business and to "do the best" for his wife and four step-children, people in this country were generous when they made donations to charity.
But he added: "When they find out that instead of going to a good cause the money has gone into the pocket of a dishonest accountant it severely tests their attitude.”
Methuen, he went on, made determined steps to cover his tracks and had falsified accounts to put people off the scent.
The 57-year-old, he said, also defrauded the Revenue out of £195,000 from the charity - and trustees feared they would lose their homes and wind up bankrupt if demands were made for the return of the money.
“As it happens the Revenue have taken a compassionate view and decided not to pursue the repayment,” the judge said - but that had left taxpayers to meet the bill.
Methuen had been in charge of financial affairs at Amblecote Christian Centre and at the relief mission - both in Stourbridge. But over a six-year period he fiddled a total of £525,905.
Rona Campbell, prosecuting, said: "He was simply paying out the money from the church bank account into his own coffers through a variety of different routes.
"He was a clever, professional, qualified man who used guile to systematically defraud the most deserving and vulnerable institutions - the church and a charity.
"He abused the trust placed in him to line his own pockets. He manoeuvred himself into the position where he had sole control of large sums of money."
Methuen admitted six charges of falsifying accounts at the Brettell Lane church and six charges relating to the falsification of accounts at the relief mission - all to conceal payments made to his own personal and business accounts.
He further admitted four charges of cheating the Revenue by filing gift aid repayment claims which overstated the total charitable donations made.
John Attwood, defending Methuen, who lived in Smalman Close, Wordsley, said he had been "robbing Peter to pay Paul".
He added: "He had hoped to pay the money back. But it simply spiralled out of control and he chose to bury his head in the sand in the hope his business would pick up and everything would be rosy again."
The judge told Methuen: "You took advantage of your good character to worm your way into the trust of the church and you grossly abused that trust. The enormity of your crimes means your health problems carry little weight."
The court heard Methuen, who showed no reaction as he was jailed, is now separated from his wife Lynda and he had been living in a caravan on a site near Worcester.
Pastor Adrian Lowe, leader of the congregation at Amblecote Christian Centre, said afterwards: "It is indeed a very sad day.
“No-one takes delight in the outcome; rather we can only see it as drawing a line under the events of the past few years."
Methuen will now have to return to court to face a Proceeds of Crime Hearing which may see any remaining assets seized.