Former vicar sentenced for fraud in Liverpool Crown Court
On 23 March 2017, the Liverpool Echo reported An alcoholic vicar stole more than £100,000 in funeral fees from the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool and blew it on booze. Rather more sympathetically, the Archdeacon of Liverpool issued a Statement regarding [Michael] Fry which commenced:
“We are pleased that Michael has been a given a suspended sentence [and] believe that justice has been done. We understand Michael fully accepts his guilt and was prepared to accept whatever the judge decided. Clergy are rightly expected to demonstrate a high level of honesty and trustworthiness, both as a duty to the Bishop and as a responsibility to their parishioners. To break that trust has inevitable and far-reaching consequences”.
The statement continued [our emphasis]:
“This has been a complex and difficult case which the police and the CPS struggled to understand. The scale of the fraud is staggering and we knew this had to be properly pursued, if nothing else on behalf of all those parishioners across our diocese who give generously to support their local churches and communities.
The money Michael Fry obtained was for funeral fees which has was not entitled to keep but should have passed to our diocese. We do not believe that any of the families were defrauded, indeed we are aware that Michael often conducted funerals with care and sensitivity.
We are glad that this matter is concluded and hope it serves to reinforce the high standards of behaviour that we expect from all those in leadership.”
In our post Clergy discipline, former clergy and parochial fees commented:
“This month [January 2015] the Church of England issued new guidance, Crematorium funerals and the payment to, and receipt of fees by, the clergy, which seeks to clarify the legal position in relation to crematorium funerals and the payment to, and receipt of fees by, the clergy. A particular issues it addresses is that of clergy who do not hold office (whether because they are retired or otherwise) and who purport to conduct funerals on a “freelance basis”.
Not entirely unconnected with this new guidance was a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 brought by The Venerable Peter Rouch against The Reverend Dr Andrew Hawthorne, primarily in relation to his retention of parochial fees for services at which he has officiated”
In this case, one of the Respondent’s arguments in relation to the tribunal’s jurisdiction was that the police had investigated the complaint against him and decided to take no action. Noting the different standards of proof in civil [i.e. CDM] and criminal actions, the tribunal therefore held that the decision not to prosecute under the criminal law could not be determinative of the matter as far as a complaint under the Measure was concerned.
The Guidance on crematorium funerals was produced, in part a response to Re Hawthorne  and associated requests for clarification of the legal position on retired clergy and self-supporting ministers. Following similar requests from hospital chaplains, on 24 February 2015, the Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee (RACSC), of the Archbishops’ Council circulated Guidance for Church of England Hospital Chaplains, Incumbents, Diocesan Boards of Finance, and Hospital Trusts in relation to Funeral Services and Church of England Parochial Fees to the chaplaincy network. FAQs are also available.
It is perhaps significant that in the case of Michael Fry, the CPS and police “struggled to understand” the issues involved. One suspects that those not versed in the workings of the Church and ecclesiastical law would experience similar difficulties, although since the issue of new guidance by the Church in 2015, the situation should be clearer to all.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned by dioceses as well as by clergy. The Liverpool Echo reports that the fraud was undetected despite a failure by the Revd Mr Fry to submit any financial returns to the diocese for nearly eight years from 2005 to 2013. The diocese was reported to be “completely relaxed” about the financial arrangement regarding funerals, “as it expected honesty, and assumed he was still carrying out 20 to 25 a year”; Fry resigned in January 2014 after admitting he had conducted at least 1,250 extra-parochial funerals.
The matter came to light after concerned were expressed over his “excessive alcohol consumption”, a contributory factor. The Daily Telegraph reports “Fry turned to alcohol after he suffered depression when his parents died and his ’emotional resources were stretched too far’ in the around-the-clock environment he worked in”. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison, suspended for two years, “with the judge telling him his good work for society outweighed the harm he caused”.
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Newspaper reports – presumably based on a press agency original – indicate Fry was guilty of theft from an employer, which may cause the casual observer to infer reasonably there was an employee/employer relationship. I have tried in vain to see under which, if any, section of the Theft Act 1968 Mr Fry was charged. A little light on this will help me with my LLM dissertation. I’ve not been able to find Liverpool Crown Court Listings for March 2017.
It may possibly cause the casual observer to infer that there was an employee/employer relationship – but, equally, it may simply suggest to the casual observer that the Crown Court got the law wrong on the employment point because it wasn’t really relevant to the point at issue.
After all, Mr Fry was charged with a criminal offence of dishonesty: failure to hand over funeral fees that he wasn’t entitled to keep. It wasn’t a civil action for wrongful dismissal or whatever. Whether or not there was an employment relationship seems hardly relevant in the circumstances: theft is theft, whether or not the thief has an employment relationship with the victim.