A CHURCH treasurer who stole almost £100,000 pounds from ecclesiastical funds by forging a female vicar's signature was sentenced to jail yesterday.

Christian Taylor, of George Road, Stokenchurch, even tried to thwart a bank probe into his frauds by taking an ‘imposter’ church official to a showdown meeting with a vigilant Natwest bank manager.

A judge heard that 61-year-old Taylor was responsible for the bank accounts of two churches as part of his duties serving on the Parochial Church Council.

He was caught making false claims to the Listed Places of Worship Scheme, a Government initiative that allows churches to claim back VAT on building works, which he then transferred into his own account.

He began the fraud just two months after volunteering as treasurer for St Nicholas Church in Great Kimble and All Saints Church in Little Kimble, Bucks.

Rachel Drake, prosecuting, told the court: "He was responsible for the bank accounts of the two churches.

"This defendant has made false claims to the Listed Places of Government Worship Scheme."

She explained that Taylor had begun volunteering in May 2008 and his crimes had gone undetected until May 2010 when a new manager was employed at the Natwest branch where the Kimble Parochial Church Council's accounts were held.

"Kay Smith, the new manager, was concerned about the frequency with which the defendant was going into the bank and withdrawing cash from the church accounts," said Miss Drake, who added that Taylor sometimes went in several times a day.

Mrs Smith wrote to one of the account's signatories, Michael Smith, but Taylor told Mr Smith he would deal with the issue.

In July 2010 he attended a meeting at the bank with a man pretending to be Mr Smith, who said the council was happy with his work.

A spot-check was also made on behalf of the LPW scheme, in which an architect mentioned in one of Taylor's claims was asked if there was an invoice attached and it was found there was not.

Representatives met with the real Mr Smith and discovered Taylor had used an imposter in the bank meeting.

Four fraudulent claims in which Taylor had forged the signature of Janet Henderson, the newly appointed vicar of the two churches, had been made to the LPW scheme - totalling £54,535 pounds.

The court heard Taylor also stole £42,358 pounds from other church income.

Judge Francis Sheridan, sitting at Aylesbury Crown Court, heard that Taylor had doctored independent accounts provided by JJS Book-keeping to hide his withdrawals from church council members.

When police arrested Taylor in March 2011 they discovered one of the fake invoices used on his computer as well as handwritten notes recording his behaviour. He gave ‘no comment’ to all questions in interview.

Miss Drake said: "Police have been trying to identify the other person who must have been working alongside this defendant but he said he can't remember the meeting at the bank.

"Not only has this put the church council into severe financial difficulties, it has also had a detrimental effect on relationships in this community."

The court heard that Taylor had several previous convictions for theft from the 1960s and 1970s including theft by an employee in 1971.

Martin Bloor, mitigating, told Judge Sheridan: "He accepts his behaviour showed planning and sophistication in relation to the documents used."

The court heard that £54,000 pounds had yet to be recovered for the council and that Taylor suffered from mental health issues including anxiety and depression, for which he is undergoing treatment. His marriage ended in November 2011.

Mr Bloor said: "He says he did not intend to hurt anybody personally but accepts it has and is ashamed of the effect it has had on these people.”

Judge Sheridan said Taylor acted "deliberately and systematically" in beginning the fraud so soon after his appointment in May 2008.

He said: "Everybody took you on face value as a thoroughly good egg, but sure as eggs is eggs, they did not know about your old convictions.”

He added that the Rev. Henderson, Mr Smith and all other church representatives were blameless victims of Taylor's fraud, which had also cost the PCC more than £22,000 pounds in legal fees and investigations.

He said: "I wish to pay tribute to the bank manager, who excelled in her vigilance in keeping a close eye on the affairs of her customers.”

Taylor, who works as a telephone canvasser for Status Glass, was sentenced to a total of 27 months in prison for two charges of fraud and two of transferring criminal property. A third charge of fraud and one of possession of articles for use in fraud were ordered to lie on file.

An order to recover the money under the Proceeds of Crime Act was also made with a hearing to take place on March 14.