A former credit union manager has been sentenced to two years in jail after pleading guilty to stealing more than €875,000 over a seven-year period.

Anne Butterly, 66, from Channel Road in Rush, Co Dublin, used most of the money to keep her husband's business afloat and to buy a car under "a fantasy" that it would all be paid back some day.

Judge Martin Nolan said it was an extremely serious offence and despite the woman's serious medical condition and her plea of guilty he felt she deserved to spend time in prison both as punishment for her crime and as a deterrent.

Last month she pleaded guilty to three sample charges of theft totalling more than €34,000. She later pleaded guilty to a further three sample charges.

Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard the total sum involved was €875,000, out of which she has repaid €865,000. The court was told that all affected customers had been repaid by the credit union's insurers.

Prosecuting counsel Aoife O'Leary told the court that in March 2016, gardaí were alerted to a significant degree of financial irregularities at Rush Credit Union and a full review was carried out.

Ms Butterly was the credit union manager and had worked there for a long number of years, having started as a volunteer.

The review found that between 2009 and 2016 members' funds had been transferred out of their accounts without permission and there were other unauthorised transactions from deposit accounts along with the purchase of a car using credit union funds.

Trusted member of staff

Ms Butterly was described as a trusted member of staff in a small rural community and that such was the level of trust, other staff, including volunteers, would co-sign blank cheques.

Some members would allow her to retain their deposit books and she had a high degree of control, the court was told. On occasion she would contact members offering them a better interest rate if they moved their money to a different type of account but the money would not be transferred to the new account.

She co-signed cheques, using them for her own benefit and most of the money was used to pay creditors of her husband's business which was in difficulty at the time. She paid tax bills and gas bills for her husband's business and bought a car in his name.

Her husband's vegetable growing business had run into difficulty at the time and Ms Butterly had kept it afloat under "a fantasy that it would all be paid back at some stage," her barrister Andrew Sexton told the court.

The net loss to the credit union was €875,000 and all customers had been repaid but one was still disputing that he had been fully refunded.

Ms Butterly's husband had sold his business and family lands to repay the credit union and more than €865,000 had been repaid.

Ms Butterly had fully cooperated with the audit and with the garda investigation and had pleaded guilty. Mr Sexton told the court Ms Butterly's health had severely deteriorated in the past seven years and she had a range of medical issues. She had lived "100% under a cloud" in that time and was "something of a pariah" in the community but had no choice but to live in that community and had suffered psychologically as a result.

Her barrister said it was accepted that her actions amounted to an outrageous breach of trust and the figures were alarming but he added "context is everything". He referred to the efforts made to get the money back and said she wanted to publicly apologise again to the community.

Testimonials from a neighbour and a reverend were handed into court along with medical reports. Three victim impact statements were also submitted but not read in court.

'Lamentable case'

Judge Nolan said it was a "lamentable case" as the woman had spent all her adult life working in Rush Credit Union and had reached the position of manager by reason of her enthusiasm and competence. He said however that she began stealing in 2009.

While she had repaid the money, to steal in such a way from "your employer and your friends" was a very serious matter as she was in a position of trust.

The judge took into account her guilty plea, her admission, her sincere remorse and the compensation paid which he said was a concrete expression of remorse. He said having reviewed her medical reports it was clear that any time spent in prison would be more difficult for her and the question he had to decide was if she deserved a custodial sentence by reason of her culpability.

He said it involved "great moral culpability", adding that she obviously had a need for money at the time but she was "a mature lady and should have known better".

The judge added: "To say it was a huge misjudgment is an under statement."

"No one can behave in this way and not go to prison," he said imposing a two-year sentence.