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29 July 2010, 13:10 | Updated: 29 July 2010, 14:33
A vicar was found guilty today of conducting hundreds of sham marriages to help illegal immigrants gain residency in Britain.
The Rev Alex Brown, 61, conducted 360 fake ceremonies at the church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, between July 2005 and July 2009.
Co-defendents Vladymyr Buchak and Michael Adelasoye were also convicted at Lewes Crown Court of conspiring to breach immigration laws by paying Eastern Europeans up to #3,000 each to marry Africans, mainly from Nigeria.
They were caught after the UK Border Agency investigated the bogus marriages.
During the seven-week trial, jurors heard that Brown presided over a total of 383 marriages during the four-year indictment period, a staggering 30-fold increase on the 13 he had conducted over the previous four years.
They were told that Buchak, 33, a Ukrainian national who had himself been living illegally in the UK since at least 2004, was responsible for ``cajoling and persuading'' the Eastern Europeans into the marriages of convenience.
He preyed on migrant workers who were living in the area and were desperate to earn money by offering them large cash sums to wed Africans to allow them to obtain the documents to live and work in the UK.
Jurors were shown photocopies of the marriage register at the church which showed that 360 out of the 383 weddings during the period involved Eastern Europeans marrying African nationals, mainly from Nigeria.
It was also apparent that, of the hundreds of people who had got married, they all seemed to live in the surrounding streets of the parish, with 90 couples registered as living in one road alone and 52 in another.
In some instances there were even several brides and grooms claiming to live in the same house and jurors were told that most of those involved in the marriages had given false addresses.
Jurors heard that Brown was arrested on June 30 last year following a joint investigation by Sussex Police and the UK Border Agency, and both his vicarage home in Blomfield Road, St Leonards- on-Sea, and the church were searched.
There they found documents he had doctored, including the church's electoral roll plus a second, altered copy, which he had filled out to hide the dramatic increase in weddings over which he was presiding.
Buchak was arrested the same day and identity documents belonging to some of the Eastern Europeans involved in the sham marriages were found in his home in Anglesea Terrace, St Leonards, while many of their numbers were found on his mobile phone.
He declined to give evidence in the trial, while Brown and the third defendant, solicitor Michael Adelasoye, 50, both denied knowing the marriages were false when they each took to the witness box.
Jurors were told at the beginning of the trial that Brown had already pleaded guilty to a charge of solemnising a marriage according to the rites of the Church of England without banns of matrimony being duly published, while Buchak had admitted using a false passport.
Although Buchak was seen as the principal organiser of the operation, prosecutor David Walbank said there was no doubt that Brown must have been fully aware that the majority of the weddings he was conducting at the church were shams.
Giving evidence, Brown who is openly gay, insisted he only ever married couples he was sure were getting married for the right reasons and exceptions would only be made if the bride-to-be was imminently expected to give birth.
But he admitted he occasionally forgot to check the passports of foreign nationals wanting to get married to make sure they had indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
He said he became suspicious of one or two couples, but this was only because of vast differences in age between the bride and groom and put the vast increase in weddings down to word of mouth.
Outside the court, the Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings, Philip Jones, said Brown had committed a ``betrayal of trust'' towards his congregation and the wider community.
He said: ``We are particularly sorry for those who have been deceived and hurt by the actions of Father Alex Brown. The church and the community of St Leonards-on-Sea are faced with a betrayal of trust on the part of Father Alex Brown.
``The Diocese of Chichester sets high standards and expects its clergy not only to comply with the law but also to honour the trust placed in them at their ordination and the promises made on becoming a vicar.
``We are saddened that a priest in Chichester Diocese has found himself in this position and we are conscious of the effect on the Church of St Peter and St Paul, St Leonards-on-Sea, and the concern caused to those who have in the past been properly married at that church.''
He added that Brown, who was suspended from his duties after his arrest, may now face disciplinary action from the Church.