A DISGRACED Worcestershire clergyman who fleeced a dementia victim of over £61,000 while he was in a nursing home has been jailed for three and half years.

The Rev Peter Hesketh, a chaplain at Worcester Royal Hospital, was unanimously convicted by a jury of theft at the end of an eight-day trial.

He befriended widower Peter Court, former landlord of The Woodman pub in Ribbesford, Bewdley, and was granted power of attorney by his family to look after his financial affairs.

But he then committed a serious breach of trust by siphoning cash from the pensioner's life savings until he died aged 75 in May 2007, Worcester Crown Court heard.

Sentencing 65-year-old Hesketh, of The Presbytery, Shrewsbury Road, Kidderminster, Judge Toby Hooper QC said although held in "high regard" by his victim, he carried out "a planned and careful series of many thefts" over 17 months.

The judge told him: "It is tragic to note you evidently held your victim in contempt, as is evidenced by your claim that you were ministering to him in religion during the offending and by derogatory remarks that you made about him."

Hesketh told police Mr Court's financial affairs were "a pig's bloody breakfast" and that he had a verbal agreement with Mr Court to be paid £20,000 a year for help over a seven-year period including trying to get two business ventures off the ground.

The judge said he accepted that Hesketh used some money for Mr Court's benefit but added: "But for your victim's untimely death, your offending would have continued indefinitely, or at least until you had stolen all that his accounts contained."

Hesketh had relied on a family fall-out which had reduced the risks of detection, the judge observed. Some stolen cash was used to pay for a wedding venue - probably for his daughter - and also to fund a mortgage on a property the defendant was converting into flats.

The judge dismissed Hesketh's claim he was entitled to annual payments as "preposterous" and said jail would be a serious burden for someone of his age.

He also noted the "meticulous" financial investigation by Lorraine Costello of West Mercia Police's economic crime unit and Det Con Phillipa Metcalfe, the officer in charge of the case.

Prosecutor Paul Mytton told the court that father-of-five Hesketh, who was ordained a deacon in the catholic church in 1992, had been "in control of the purse strings" and thought no-one would notice the swindle.

He also suggested that the defendant squandered some of the cash on gambling. Betting documents from four bookmakers were found at his home by police.

Hesketh, a former sales manager, was arrested in June 2008 after a complaint was made about the way money from Mr Court's accounts had been used.

As a deacon, Hesketh was licensed to carry out baptisms, funerals and burials. He officiated at Mr Court's funeral when no members of his family were present.

Friends and colleagues of the defendant were shocked when he was charged with theft, the jury heard. One of them was County councillor Fran Oborski who served with him on the board of governors at St Ambrose primary school in Kidderminster.

Defence barrister Peter Arnold said Hesketh would find jail difficult because of health problems. They included epilespy, high blood pressure and gout.