A Church of England vicar was jailed for four-and-a-half years today for presiding over nearly 250 sham marriages in a “massive and systematic” immigration fraud.
The Rev Brian Shipsides, 56, conducted more than 200 bogus unions at his inner-city parish, pocketing the proceeds for his own financial gain.
The nuptials – largely between Nigerians and European Union citizens – gave the phoney brides and grooms the right to stay in Britain.
inner London Crown Court heard that Shipsides’ scam centred around All Saints Church in Forest Gate, east London, where he held around 250 ceremonies in a two-and-a-half year period.
The unions were arranged with the help of “marriage fixer” Amudalat Ladipo, 32, and in many cases, involved the purchase of easyJet flights for those flown into the country specifically for the wedding ceremonies.
Prosecutors claim Shipsides pocketed more than £30,000 for his “meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated” scheme.
Jailing Shipsides, Judge Peter Grobel told him: “Your important role in this conspiracy was a disgraceful abuse of your calling as an ordained minister of the Church.
“This was a conspiracy to breach the United Kingdom’s immigration laws by arranging sham marriages.
“These marriages took place in your church. Your church where you had been the priest in charge for many years.”
During Shipsides’ tenure, he said up to seven bogus unions took place on one day.
“Your criminal conduct appears to have been motivated as much by arrogance as by greed,” the judge added.
“There really is no mitigation in respect of this type of offending which undermines UK immigration law, threatens the benefit system and exploits the lives of many vulnerable and desperate people.”
shipsides, of Forest Gate, east London, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate breaches of immigration law between December 2007 and August 2010 at an earlier hearing.
He appeared to blink back tears as he was led from the dock today.
Ladipo – who was herself married to a Dutch national at All Saints church – was jailed for three years for the same offence, following a trial earlier this year.
The Nigerian mother-of-two, from Plaistow in east London, was given a further 18-month prison term for a second count of possessing a false identity document.
The two sentences will run concurrently.
The court had heard how the two defendants operated “in concert” with others who have not been identified or apprehended.
Over time, the frequency of the sham nuptials increased dramatically and, in the first seven months of 2010, some 112 unions took place.
Meanwhile, Shipsides took great care to conceal the plot.
He ensured suspicions were not raised among his regular congregation by deliberately omitting to read wedding banns.
He also avoided submitting records in relation to the number of marriages being conducted at the church so no individual possessed more than a “fraction” of the information available to the vicar himself.
“Most of the so-called couples participating in those marriage ceremonies were not actually couples at all and they were not married in that church because they wished to spend their lives together and sought the blessing of the church upon their union,” David Walbank, prosecuting, said.
“Rather, it is clear that most of the persons married at All Saints Church, Forest Gate, during the indictment period went through a ceremony of marriage for very different reasons – for the purposes of this immigration scam whose ultimate purpose was to enable one of the persons participating in the ceremony to obtain enhanced rights to enter and live in the United Kingdom.”
The court heard how, in the vast majority of cases, the weddings involved a Portuguese or Dutch national who could guarantee UK residency.
But Church officials stepped in when they became increasingly concerned by the sheer number of ceremonies conducted at All Saints.
“In at least one instance, such a concern was felt about one particular wedding that Rev Shipsides was instructed in terms that it should not go ahead,” Mr Walbank said.
“He responded in due course that he had cancelled that wedding. That was a lie.
“He had in fact gone ahead and conducted the ceremony despite being instructed not to do so.”
Outlining the case against Shipsides, he added: “The charges relate to a massive and systematic immigration fraud which involved a cynical exploitation of two particular elements of UK immigration law.”
Firstly, he said Shipsides took advantage of a system whereby citizens from the European Economic Area have “enhanced rights” to enter and reside in Britain.
Secondly, he said, the vicar exploited a “loophole” in which the Church of England is not required to obtain a certificate of approval from the Home Office ahead of a marriage – a point of law which only applies in civil unions and marriages at non-established churches.
This, he said, left the Church of England “open to abuse by those cynical and unscrupulous enough to exploit the loophole”.
Shipsides and Ladipo were arrested after police began to investigate suspicious activities in his parish.
Officers arrived at All Saints church on July 31 2010, a day when three bogus weddings were to take place.
Prosecutors claim another 17 unions were scheduled to go ahead in August.
A number of participants in sham nuptials at the church have been arrested and charged with immigration offences.
Shipsides, of the vicarage in Claremont Road, was suspended from his Church of England duties shortly after his arrest on August 3 2010.
He appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for officiating at the wedding of the world’s tallest married couple in 2001.
He was the priest in charge at All Saints in Hampton Road and St Edmunds in Katherine Road.
Andy Russell, who led the investigation for the UK Border Agency’s London Criminal and Financial Investigation team, said: “Our investigations revealed that Shipsides understood that the purpose of the weddings was to evade immigration controls.
“The scale of the abuse was staggering and he had also acted to conceal the true number of weddings taken place at All Saints from the church authorities.”
Simon Prankard, senior investigating officer on the same team, added: “Brian Shipsides was prepared to abuse his position and the trust placed in him by the Church and his community.
“Amudalat Ladipo showed scant regard for the UK’s immigration laws, willfully flouting them for her own gain.
“This was a long and complex inquiry into what was an organised and sophisticated criminal conspiracy
“But I hope it sends out the message that we will pursue those who facilitate sham marriages and hold them accountable for their actions – no matter who they are.”