The Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh on Thursday welcomed the conviction of the former Superintendent of its Mount Vernon Cemetery in Edinburgh, Willie Henderson, after he pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of pounds from the Archdiocese in a fraudulent scheme that involved selling forged burial deeds to grieving families.
“There are two victims of Willie Henderson’s criminal behaviour: The Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh which has been defrauded of thousands of pounds but, much more significantly and disturbingly, is the impact on those families who were exploited by him at a time when they were grieving and vulnerable. That’s why his crimes are so shocking,” said Dr Elspeth Atkinson, Chief Operating Officer of the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh, 31 August.
“The Archdiocese deeply regrets the criminal activities of Willie Henderson and has been working hard over the past months to offer both pastoral and practical support to those families affected by his actions and we will, of course, continue to do so in the months to come.”
Dr Atkinson’s comments come after 46-year-old Willie Henderson pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud at Edinburgh Sherriff Court this morning. In total, Henderson’s criminal scheme involved 13 individual instances of fraud between 2006 and 2015.
Willie Henderson was employed at Mount Vernon Cemetery from 1997 until 2015. He became Acting Superintendent of the cemetery in October 2012 and was confirmed in that post in March 2014. During this time, Mount Vernon Cemetery operated at arms length from central administration of the Archdiocese with responsibility for its management being largely entrusted to the on-site cemetery superintendent.
The arrival of Archbishop Leo Cushley as the new Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh in September 2013 saw the beginning of a review and overhaul of the internal governance of the Archdiocese. That process began to bring to light some concerns regarding the on-site management of Mount Vernon Cemetery in late 2014.
On 22 January 2015, the Archdiocese received a complaint from an undertaker regarding a potentially fraudulent burial deed. The next day, Willie Henderson agreed to go on leave while the complaint was investigated by the Archdiocese. Police Scotland were also alerted. At the same time, the responsibility for the administration of burials at Mount Vernon was removed from the on-site office at the cemetery and given over to staff at the headquarters of the Archdiocese based in Edinburgh. Willie Henderson was formally suspended by the Archdiocese on 17 April 2015 tendered his resignation on 1 May 2015.
In November 2016, Willie Henderson was arrested by Police Scotland and charged with fraud. The charge of fraud refers to any theft which was also followed by fraudulent adjustment of the burial record and sales ledger.
It appears that Henderson’s modus operandi saw him sell forged burial deeds for cash-in-hand which then went undeclared to his employers, the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh. Usually this would involve identifying and selling spare, unutilised ground in the cemetery such as access paths. The price charged by Henderson for each deed varied.
Two cases, however, involve what is known as an “over-burial” where families were sold plots by Henderson believing them to be new lair when, in fact, they already had deceased persons buried in the unmarked grave.
In anticipation of Henderson’s arrest in November 2016, the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh established a telephone hotline for anybody concerned that they had been affected by his criminal activities.
Meanwhile, all those identified by Police Scotland as being affected by Henderson’s crimes were given a personal letter from Archbishop Cushley expressing his sympathy and solidarity followed by an invitation to contact the Archdiocese in order to receive both practical and pastoral support.
“It was the overhaul of the internal governance of the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh, overseen by Archbishop Leo Cushley, which led to the detection of criminal activities at Mount Vernon, Willie Henderson’s departure from the organisation, Police Scotland being called in and, crucially, the implementation of new internal systems, now in place, which ensure that something like this can never happen again,” said Dr Atkinson.