The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, is set to arrest reverend fathers and leaders of the two Catholic Churches in Delta State which received from Francis Atuche, former managing director of Bank PHB, money believed to be stolen depositors’ funds, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting has reported.

Mr. Atuche, who is standing trial at the Lagos High Court, Ikeja, paid N45 million he allegedly stole from depositor to St. Monica Catholic Church and St. Augustine Catholic Church, both located in Ibusa, Delta State.

While St. Monica got N35million as tithe from Atuche, St Augustine got N10million.

Sources in the commission told icirnigeria.org that the agency has taken a decision to recover the entire amount and plans to arrest the priests and leaders of both churches to help in the recovery of the money.

The EFCC, our sources revealed, wants to use this as a test case to deal with religious bodies who help criminals to launder money in the guise of performing religious obligations such as tithes, offerings and vows.

The commission is said to be worried that many Nigerians, in both the public and private sectors, who steal money hide under such religious obligations to launder some of their loot and anti – graft agencies and the police have found it difficult to deal with the matter because of it’s sensitive religious nature.

But one of our sources in the EFCC said the commission will “no longer tolerate religious institutions, whether churches or mosques, synagogues, shrines or whatever, receiving stolen money in the guise of offering or tithes”.

“It is money laundering, simple. You might pretend to be ignorant of the source of the money, but under the law if you receive money from proceeds of crime you are guilty of money laundering and ignorance is no excuse under the law,” the source said.

According to the source, henceforth, any money illicitly obtained and given to any religious body or organization will be fully recovered.

Apart taking from action on this particular case, it was gathered that the EFCC will also come out with a stern warning to religious houses to investigate the source of funds that come to them from worshippers, particularly when it involves public figures and large amounts of money.

The commission may also engage religious houses and organizations in the country through seminars and interactions to sensitize them about what the law says about receiving stolen funds.

The EFCC has great latitude under the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2004 to prosecute persons who receive proceeds of crime.

In fact, such persons, under the Act are liable to a jail term of between two to three years.

Section 14: (1) (a) of the Act makes it an offense for any person to convert or transfer any resources or property derived from illicit traffic in drugs, crimes and other illicit acts.

More specifically, Section 14: (1) (b) states that any person that “collaborates in concealing or disguising the Genuine nature, origin, location, disposition, movement or ownership of the resources, property or right thereto derived directly or indirectly from the illicit traffic in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substance or any other crime or illicit act commits a crime”

The person is also “liable on conviction to a term not less than 2 years or mare than 3 years”.

Section 16 of the Act also makes it an offense punishable by up to five years imprisonment for anybody to “retain the proceeds of a crime or illegal act on behalf of another person knowing or suspecting that the other person to be engaged in a criminal conduct or has benefited from a criminal conduct.”

The Act also does not preclude a corporate body from prosecution as Section 18 (1) states: “Where an offense under this act has been committed by a body corporate is proved to have been committed the instigation or with the connivance of or attributable to any neglect on the part of a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate, or any person purporting to act in any such capacity, he, as well as the body corporate shall be guilty of that offense and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.”

Under Section 18 (2) the court can order any corporate body found guilty to be wound up and it’s assets and property forfeited to the federal government.

Mr. Atuche and others are standing trial for stealing over N10 billion belonging to Bank PHB. At the resumed hearing in the case before Justice Lateefat Okunnu last week, a witness, Solomon AbolajiOgunsola, a former staff of PHB Mortgages Limited, alleged that Atuche paid the N45 million tithe from an account of PHB Mortgage Limited.

Lead prosecution counsel, Kemi Pinheiro, presented documents in court, including e-mail orders for the releaseof the sum of N45 million to the two churches.

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