Patrick Barkham and Caroline Davies, Guardian (London), July 29, 2010
A vicar has been convicted of conducting hundreds of fake marriage ceremonies at his East Sussex church to enable illegal African immigrants to gain residency in Britain.
The Rev Alex Brown, 61, presided over 360 sham marriages where penniless East Europeans, with rights to live and work in the UK, were paid up to £3,000 each to wed Africans, mainly from Nigeria, at the church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea.
He was found guilty of conspiring to facilitate the commission of breaches of immigration laws with co-defendant, Ukrainian national Vladymyr Buchak, at Lewes crown court after a seven-week trial during which he maintained he had simply been naive. Nigerian-born Michael Adelasoye, 50, a solicitor who specialised in immigration law and advised African participants on residency applications once married, was also convicted.
The court had heard that Buchak, 33, living illegally in the UK since at least 2004, preyed on migrant East Europeans living in the area, who were desperate to earn money, by offering them large cash sums to wed Africans who wanted to obtain residency documents.
Brown, from Alnwick, Northumberland, described by parishioners as a man with a social conscience and a pillar of the local community, would then marry the couples.
In the four years to 2005, he married just 13 couples. But between July 2005 and July 2009 the number of ceremonies leapt 30-fold.
Jurors were told the ceremonies involved couples who produced rings that did not fit, couples who could not speak the same language, and several people who would request to marry one person one week and the next week decide to marry someone else.
It was also apparent that, of the hundreds of people who married, all seemed to live in the streets surroundingthe parish church, with 90 couples registered as living in one road alone.
In some instances there were 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.
Two years after the surge in ceremonies Brown was summoned to meet the Archdeacon of Hastings and Lewes, Philip Jones, and questioned about them. He stopped for a short period. Then, apparently satisfied, the Church of England hierarchy allowed him to continue the weddings, which bolstered the ailing finances at his church.
Brown was arrested on 30 June last year after a joint investigation by Sussex police and the UK Border Agency, and his vicarage and the church were searched.
There they found documents he had doctored, including the church’s electoral roll, to hide the increase in weddings over which he was presiding.
Buchak was arrested the same day and identity documents belonging to some East Europeans involved found in his home in 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, Adelasoye both denied knowing the marriages were false when they each took to the witness box.
Although Buchak was seen as the principal organiser of the operation, prosecutor David Walbank said Brown must have been fully aware that the majority of the weddings he was conducting at the church were sham.
Giving evidence, Brown said he only ever married couples he was sure were getting married for the right reasons and exceptions would be made only 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.
Outside court, the Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings said Brown had committed a “betrayal of trust” towards his congregation and the wider community.
“We are particularly sorry for those who have been deceived and hurt by the actions of Father Alex Brown,” he said.
Brown, who was suspended from his duties after his arrest, may now face disciplinary action from the Church.
Sentencing was adjourned to a later date.