In the name of the forger
A PARISH thief convicted of stealing €27,000 from the local community centre has told the Sunday World: 'I've paid my debt.'
Swindler John Lonergan was last week given a two-year suspended sentence for fleecing Knockainey Community Centre, Limerick, over a nine-year period - by forging his parish priest's name on more than 120 cheques.
Pictures posted by Lonergan on his publicly accessible Facebook account showed how the 57-year-old thief enjoyed breaks around Ireland and holidayed in Lanzarote during the height of his spree.
Locals told the Sunday World this week they will never forgive Lonergan for having used now deceased priest, Liam Holmes' name to steal the cash - saying the betrayal broke the heart of the ailing cleric.
Nevertheless, as former friends in the community and committee members struggle with the scale of Lonergan's betrayal in the tight-knit community of 700 people, he insisted the €27,000 was the full extent of his thefts.
"I've paid back my money," he said.
"I paid back whatever was owed - all the money I took. I've paid back my debt. I have been in court.
"I've been on TV, I've been in the papers, that's it."
Sources close to the committee that ran Knockainey Community Centre in Limerick told the Sunday World how Lonergan's gross betrayal has shattered the community - with many people who formally called him a friend believing "he should have got jail".
The source said: "This has destroyed the trust people felt in everyone in our community to do the right thing.
"Lonergan may have walked out of court a free man last week but the sentence in no way reflected the hurt he caused to the people of this community.
"For the last two or three years of his life our beloved parish priest had his existence blighted by questions being asked about the community centre's finances.
"Fr Liam [Holmes] died in May of this year.
"He simply hadn't wanted to believe one of his own parishioners could have done something so horrible.
"Fr Liam had been ill for a number of years but I think it broke his heart that someone he trusted could have done this."
Lonergan pleaded guilty at Limerick Circuit Court to 30 sample charges of theft relating to offences which occurred on dates between December 2009 and March 2017.
Detective Garda Chris Cowan said Lonergan, whose wife was treasurer of the committee during that time, had cashed more than 120 cheques over an eight-year period.
He told Lily Buckley BL, instructed by State solicitor Aidan Judge, the father-of-four had forged his wife's signature as well that of Fr Liam Holmes, PP, who was chairman of the committee, and who sadly passed away in May of this year.
All of the cheques, he added, were cashed at the Centra store in the local town, Hospital.
Detective Garda Cowan said concerns first emerged in March 2017, around a month after a new treasurer was elected.
He said the then committee sought a grant to fund an extension of the community centre and that three years of bank statements were required to support the application.
The previous treasurer - Mr Lonergan's wife - had not presented accounts to the committee for a number of years so duplicate statements were obtained.
"It quickly became obvious that money had been stolen," said Ms Buckley, who added that efforts were initially made to "deal with matters at a community level".
While John Lonergan repaid €5,000 early on, a formal complaint was made to gardai in August 2017 when no further payments were made.
Detective Garda Cowan said a complex investigation was carried out involving the tracking of 125 cheques and the associated paper trail.
"It was a complicated investigation, it took time," he said.
Judge Tom O'Donnell was told the defendant presented himself at Bruff garda station on May 16, 2018 and made admissions when interviewed.
The detective said the offending began shortly after Mr Lonergan was forced to stop working as a plasterer due a medical condition.
He told gardai his wife was unaware of what he was doing as he removed random cheques from the chequebook and later burned the stubs and statements, meaning there were no records.
Barrister Eimear Carey said her client has used the money to "maintain his lifestyle" and to pay for "day to day expenses" and bills.
She said he had always intended repaying the money but that it spiralled out of control and "snowballed".
The Sunday World obtained evidence of this 'snowball' effect on Lonergan's publicly available Facebook page.
Images he posted showed how, despite being unable to work, he enjoyed breaks around the country and in December 2016 enjoyed a holiday in Lanzarote.
Ms Carey, defending, said Lonergan had taken full responsibility once approached by gardai and she asked the court to note that the AIB in Kilmallock has fully reimbursed the community centre.
Imposing sentence, Judge O'Donnell noted there had been a "ripple effect" and extreme anger in the community and he commented that there are lessons to be learned as a result of what happened.
He said the pre-meditated nature of the offending and the length of time it continued for were aggravating factors which he had to consider.
However, given Mr Lonergan's cooperation, his previous good record and his "loss of standing" in the community he said he was satisfied there was "no need" for an immediate custodial sentence. He imposed a two-year sentence, which he suspended in full.
In internal committee documents seen by the Sunday World, members said the loss felt by the community went beyond the €27,000 Lonergan admitted to stealing.
Outside of the €27,000, the document stated: "There was a loss of income to the Community Centre as it was closed for a number of months as there was no funds to repair the heating when it broke down.
"But it is not only the financial loss to the parish, as Knockainey was a very close-knit community and people serving on committees were not only committee members but neighbours, friends and in some cases, relations.
"Knockainey Community Centre was one such committee and all the members were close friends so when the suspicion of fraud and theft arose, it was met with disbelief followed by shock and anger."