To clergy and parishioners, senior church official Martin Sargeant seemed to have a gift for financial enterprise, forging new links with business and helping to breathe new life into historic buildings.
Sargeant, a former head of operations at the Diocese of London, part of the Church of England, helped spearhead projects to help churches in the City of London which had tiny congregations and were badly in need of money and revitalisation.
Richard Chartres, the former Bishop of London, once praised the influential church administrator for his knack of “turning ideas into profitable ventures”.
But as Sargeant crisscrossed the Square Mile, distributing funds and negotiating agreements with City financiers, developers and the church, he was hiding a secret that would end up unravelling his life and draining parishes of money.
Sargeant was a gambling addict, and had been hooked on fruit machines since he was a teenager. He fuelled his addiction with stolen Church of England funds.
On 19 December, at Southwark crown court in central London, Sargeant, 53, was sentenced to five years in jail for the offence of fraud by abuse of his position. He had stolen £5.21m in charitable church funds between January 2009 and December 2019.
Giorgina Venturella of the Crown Prosecution Service said: “Sargeant completely abused his position of trust and power to satisfy his own selfish purposes. He took money to fund an expensive lifestyle, including flying around the world and bankrolling a gambling habit.”
The conclusion to Sargeant’s case came as police consider the wider rollout of a project to identify suspects with gambling addictions. While there have been various estimates of the cost of crime linked to drink and drug addiction – which is put in excess of £24bn a year – there is limited data on the extent of gambling-fuelled crime.
In Sargeant’s case, the judge, Michael Grieve KC, heard how betting firms had plied the accused with gifts, including watches, food hampers and travel vouchers. The judge concluded the gambling did offer “some form of mitigation” in the case.
Documents obtained by the Observer reveal that over 12 years Sargeant staked more than £12.2m with just one betting brand.
The industry is now facing calls for stricter affordability checks.
The prosecution said the church administrator had been motivated mainly by greed, but Mark Ruffell, defending Sargeant, said gambling was at the core of the crime. “It’s the poor cousin of addiction and it is being understood more recently,” he said.
The court was read a statement from Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Royal College of Psychiatrists lead on behavioural addictions, which said “we must acknowledge gambling disorder as a mental illness”. While on bail, Sargeant had been receiving residential treatment for gambling addiction from the Gordon Moody charity.
Sargeant, originally from Bournemouth, had a troubled childhood and started playing fruit machines as a teenager. …….