A gambling addict took more than £220,000 from Norwich’s Catholic Cathedral while volunteering as its treasurer.

Eastern Daily Press: Rene Mugenzi claimed his life would be under threat if it was revealed that he lived in Norwich, yet he posted public photos on Facebook of his life in Norwich. Photo: Facebook/Rene MugenziRene Mugenzi claimed his life would be under threat if it was revealed that he lived in Norwich, yet he posted public photos on Facebook of his life in Norwich. Photo: Facebook/Rene Mugenzi (Image: Archant)

Rene Mugenzi was jailed for more than two years at Norwich Crown Court on Friday afternoon for siphoning off the cash from the bank account at St John the Baptist Cathedral and into his own between March 2016 and May 2018.

He admitted the fraud at Norwich Magistrates’ Court in July, but magistrates barred the public from knowing about the case because Mugenzi’s solicitor told them the fraudster’s life was under threat.

The 44-year old is an opponent of the government in Rwanda, where he grew up, and in 2011 was warned by the Met Police that he could be a target for assassination.

But this newspaper successfully challenged that order, meaning we can now report the case for the first time.

Eastern Daily Press: Rene Mugenzi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Quintessential82Rene Mugenzi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Quintessential82 (Image: Archant)

Much of the cash was designated for Catholic charities and church work and had been donated by worshippers at the end of services.

But Mugenzi pocketed it to fund his gambling addiction, the court heard.

Prosecutor Chris Youell said the political activist transferred small amounts into his own account and lost track of how much he had taken.

He had full access to the account and there were no checks in place.

Eastern Daily Press: Rene Mugenzi arrives at Norwich Crown Court for sentencing. Photo: ArchantRene Mugenzi arrives at Norwich Crown Court for sentencing. Photo: Archant (Image: (C) Archant 2020)

The fraud was not discovered until the cathedral carried out a review into its finances two years later in 2018 when it was struggling to pay bills.

In a victim impact statement, Canon David Paul said the fraud had left the cathedral unable to pay bills and had a “very detrimental” impact on their ability to trust people.

The church only recovered around a quarter of the money from insurers.

Eastern Daily Press: The Cathedral of St John the Baptist where Mugenzi was a volunteer treasurer. Picture: ANTONY KELLYThe Cathedral of St John the Baptist where Mugenzi was a volunteer treasurer. Picture: ANTONY KELLY (Image: Archant Norfolk 2018)

• ‘Used gambling like a drug’

Andrew Oliver, mitigating for Mugenzi, said he had used gambling like a drug to deal with mental health issues, brought about by struggling to make ends meet.

He said Mugenzi had since sought help, stopped gambling and attended more than 20 therapy sessions.

Mr Oliver pointed to Mugenzi’s work speaking out against human rights abuses of regimes, including the Rwandan government.

He said Mugenzi believed he was under threat from the Rwandan government and this made him anxious and fearful and he had struggled to work.

Mr Oliver described the fraud as “amateurish” and said Mugenzi had admitted it to police as soon as it was discovered in summer 2018.

He said it had a big impact on Mugenzi’s personal life and harmed his relationship with his family.

He asked the judge to suspend Mugenzi’s sentence, meaning he would not go to prison.

But sentencing him to 27 months in prison, judge Katharine Moore said Mugenzi had “grossly abused” trust placed in him.

She acknowledged he had pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and was a “highly intelligent man” of “active good character”.

But she ruled that only a prison sentence could be justified.

•Cathedral sorry for ‘failure’

The Diocese of East Anglia said it had issued a “wholehearted apology” to its congregation “over the failure of the parish finance committee and other colleagues”.

Canon David Paul, the Cathedral Dean, said: “We are extremely saddened that such a fraud was committed by someone whom we trusted and put in a position of responsibility.

“But we are also truly sorry that this has happened and want to offer our apologies to all of those people who have supported the cathedral over the period in question and whose money has not gone to the purposes for which it was intended.

“The Diocese and the Cathedral Parish Finance Committee have now put more robust measures in place to ensure, as far as possible, it will not happen again.”

He said that charities, where some of the money given in collections was meant to go, had been “fully reimbursed”.

He added that a full investigation had been carried out by the Vicar for Finance, Deacon James Hurst who made “far-reaching recommendations” for every parish in the Diocese.

The Bishop of East Anglia, Rt Rev Alan Hopes, said: “I am very saddened that this has happened and understand how it could erode people’s trust in the Diocese’s stewardship of their generosity.

“However, I am confident that with the new structures that are being implemented with regard to finances across the Diocese it will make it more difficult for such an extensive fraud to occur again.”

•From human rights campaigner to gambling addict

Rene Mugenzi’s path to the dock in Norwich Crown Court was long and winding.

He was born in southern Russia to Rwandan parents, according to his Wikipedia page, where he is described as a “human rights activist, community organiser and politician”.

The 44-year old left Russia while still a child and grew up in Rwanda.

He fled when he was 18 during the genocide of the 1990s which destroyed the central African country.

In 1997, aged 21, he moved to the UK where he worked with Rwandan opposition groups, according to his Wikipedia page. He has lived in England ever since.

The British citizen studied at King’s College, London, and then started community work in the city.

In 2010 he stood in local elections in Greenwich for the Liberal Democrats.

A year later he was in the international press, after being warned his life could be under threat.

The New York Times reported the Met Police had told Mugenzi the Rwandan government wanted to assassinate him because of his work with the opposition.

“Reliable intelligence states that the Rwandan government poses an imminent threat to your life,” the letter read.

However, Mugenzi continued to speak out against the Rwandan regime and also worked to increase social mobility in London, according to his Wikipedia page.

In the 2015 general election he stood to become MP for Limehouse and Poplar for a group called the Red Flag Anti-Corruption Party. He came last with 89 votes.

According to his LinkedIn page, he started work as a guest lecturer at the University of East Anglia in 2017 in “social innovation and social entrepreneurship development”.

He lists his most recent job as ”social innovation consultant” in Cambridge.

Mugenzi is listed as a director of several companies, including one where he became a director just five days before he appeared in Norwich Magistrates’ Court and pleaded guilty to the fraud.