Saturday, July 28, 2007

Parish priest commended for facing blackmailers

A parish priest has been commended by a judge for his courage in going to the Gardaí to put a stop to extortion demands placed on him by a Galway couple.

The couple, former Romanian Olympic boxer, Petre Zsiga (42) and his wife Margaret Zsiga (30), of Seacrest, Knocknacarra, Galway, admitted at Galway Circuit Criminal Court to blackmailing Fr Brendan Lawless, parish priest of Portumna, by demanding €24,500 from him over a two year period, by using an incriminating video they claimed to have of him in a sexually compromising position.

The couple pleaded guilty to two charges each of demanding €14,500 from Fr Lawless for the return of the alleged incriminating video recording of him which they claimed to have on a date unknown between September and October 2005.

They also pleaded guilty to demanding a further €10,000 from their victim with menaces on June 29th, 2006.

The court was told by Sgt Daithí Cronin that Margaret Zsiga, originally from Mullingar, had gone to Fr Lawless's house with a bottle of wine and a flag and followed him from his living room to a bedroom.

The Sergeant said she was carrying a camera concealed in a bag and attempted to video him, but the camera had dislodged.

He said she had offered Fr Lawless sexual relations, but the audio recordings made it clear that Fr Lawless refused her advances.

A few days later, however, Margaret Zsiga told Fr Lawless that she had an incriminating video of the priest and would go to the press unless he paid her €14,500.

Judge Raymond Groarke sentenced Petra Zsigna to four years in prison with the last two years suspended for three years. He sentenced Margaret Zsiga to four years as well, but suspended the sentence because, he said, one parent had to mind their five young children.

Judge Groarke said crimes involving blackmail, extortion and demanding money with menaces were extremely rare because victims of such crimes rarely came forward to "blow the whistle" on their blackmailers.

He also said victims were usually very vulnerable people in vulnerable positions.

"Notwithstanding the innuendo that may be drawn from the allegations made against him, he is to be commended for doing what he did. He was extremely brave to do what he did, knowing the efforts being made to pillory his good name," Judge Groarke said of the victim.

Judge Groarke said he was utterly convinced there had been no sexual relationship between Margaret Zsiga and Fr Lawless, and reminded her that Fr Lawless was the innocent victim at all times in this case and as a person convicted before the court she possessed no credibility whatsoever.

“There will be people who think the worst of the unfortunate victim but they should remember he is a victim of one of the worst forms of criminality, perpetrated by people who do not care two hoots for the harm and damage they have done to him,” he said.

The court also learned that the Zsigas regularly added to their modest incomes by preying on priests, whom they regarded as a “soft touch” for money.

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