Man on sex offence order ‘infiltrated church in secret’

A man banned from unsupervised contact with children secretly infiltrated a family-based church group, the High Court has heard.

Richard McFarland (42), went undetected in their midst for five weeks before he was discovered handing out religious tracts with a 15-year-old boy in Belfast city centre, prosecutors said.

McFarland, of Fortwilliam Parade in the city, has been charged with 18 counts of breaching a Sexual Offences Prevention Order. He was refused bail after a judge ruled the protection of young people must be ensured.

Crown counsel Nicola Auret said an assessment of McFarland provided “compelling evidence” he was highly likely to cause serious harm through a sexual or violent offence.

She told the court an investigation was launched after he was spotted distributing pamphlets on April 3.

Ms Auret said: “When he was asked about the situation where he came to be handing out these religious tracts he stated he had been down in the town shopping when he came across a church group and offered to help hand out tracts.

“However, police enquiries into this connection have revealed that for a period of approximately five weeks he has, in the words of police, infiltrated a church group. “He has lied to the church members to gain their trust.” Mrs Auret disclosed: “This church is a family-based church and has a high proportion of young families with children.”

The congregation, made up of around 30 people with another 15 youngsters, was said to hold its meetings in two different hotels. McFarland’s alleged breaches involved attending a birthday party for a four-year-old child, playing basketball with children and attending a dinner where youngsters were present.

It was alleged that during the five-week period his supervisors visited him 17 times and at no stage did he disclose his contact with the church. Charles McCreanor, defending, said McFarland maintained there was never any lone-contact with children. “The case he makes is that at all times he was with adult members of the church group,” Mr McCreanor said.

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