John Rees, the former chief executive of the South African Council of Churches who now heads the respected Institute of Race Relations, was given a suspended jail sentence of 10 years and fined the equivalent of $27,600 for fraud in the Johannesburg Supreme Court today.
Judge Richard Goldstone, who described the case as a "bizarre" one whose full story had not been told, found that Rees had misused $266,800 entrusted to him by the council.
He found that Rees had not used the money to enrich himself but said it was still fraud.
The case was strange, Goldstone said, because the church council had laid no charge itself, saying it regarded Rees as honest, and also because Rees' associates believed the police had brought it as part of a vendetta against the council.
The council, run by Rees' successor, Bishop Desmond Tutu, is bitterly critical of the government's segregationist policies. A government commission has been appointed to investigate the council's financing and workings.
The case against Rees related to activities between 1976 and 1978, while he was general secretary and the council was heavily involved in aiding blacks caught up in clashes with the police that began in Johannesburg's black township of Soweto.
Rees had two discretionary funds for this aid. Rees also claimed the existence of a third, secret fund called Actipax to promote peace. He said he opened it at the request of churches in the Netherlands when he made a visit there. He said he juggled money among these funds, using personal bank accounts as well as eight that he operated for the council.
Goldstone said he believed that Rees had invented the Actipax story to explain his debts to the council.