A vicar with a drink problem lied about hundreds of funerals to steal more than £100,000 from a church before spending it on alcohol and books, a court has heard.
Michael Fry, 57, hid the real number of funerals he conducted between 2006 and 2013 from his bosses at the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool to fund his excessive drink habit.
The chaplain at Liverpool Women's Hospital and team vicar in the St Luke's parish of the city from 1991 was allowed to retain a portion of fees passed on from funeral directors to offset against his annual £22,500 stipend.
However, he took advantage of the diocese's trust in him that he conducted around 20 funerals per year when in fact he was officiating around 100.
He failed to submit any annual returns during the offending period until he tendered his resignation in January 2014 after the church discovered the discrepancy.
This was a despicable offence. It's hard to believe that anyone would stoop so low
Investigating officer Detective Constable Tony Read
The matter was passed to police and Fry accepted he lied about how many funerals he had conducted, Liverpool Crown Court heard.
Previously concerns had been raised within the diocese about his excessive drinking and "rumours of inappropriate behaviour".
Simon Duncan, prosecuting, said that in one police interview Fry told detectives he spent the fees on "drink, travel, books for the garden and even a payment to the organist".
He pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to eight counts of theft totalling £107,673, although the figure was an estimate because of the lack of record keeping.
Fry was sentenced to 20 months in prison, suspended for two years, with the judge telling him his good work for society outweighed the harm he caused.
Martine Snowdon, defending, said her client was "deeply remorseful". She said: "He fully accepts that he has failed his peers and the wider society in failing to account as scrupulously as he could have done and allowed himself to be enriched."
She said testimonials to the court showed he had provided "unquantifiable benefits" to those he had helped in the community over decades.
Fry turned to alcohol after he suffered depression when his parents died and his "emotional resources were stretched too far" in the around-the-clock environment he worked in, she said.
After being sectioned in 2014, he is currently volunteering at a homeless centre in Liverpool.
Sentencing, Judge Elizabeth Nicholls told Fry: "Putting aside the money issues, you are undoubtedly a very caring, compassionate individual.
The money Michael Fry obtained was for funeral fees, which he was not entitled to keep
Archdeacon of Liverpool, Venerable Ricky Panter
"I take the view that there comes a time in a man's life when you are entitled to say 'measure the good I have done against the harm I have done'.
"I have no doubt the good you have done in the community, and continue to do, outweighs the harm you have done."
Outside court the Archdeacon of Liverpool, Venerable Ricky Panter, said he believed that "justice has been done".
He said: "Clergy are rightly expected to demonstrate a high level of honesty and trustworthiness, both as a duty to the Bishop and as a responsibility to their parishioners. To break that trust has inevitable and far-reaching consequences.
"The money Michael Fry obtained was for funeral fees which he was not entitled to keep but should have passed to our diocese.
"We do not believe that any of the families were defrauded, indeed we are aware that Michael often conducted funerals with care and sensitivity."
Investigating officer Detective Constable Tony Read said: "This was a despicable offence. It's hard to believe that anyone would stoop so low as to keep the money given in good faith by families grieving a loved one, when they clearly anticipated that money would go to the diocese.
"The diocese put their trust in Fry to do his job in an honourable way and they understandably felt sorely let down by his actions. This money could and should have been used by the church, but instead has been spent by Fry on himself."