A former headteacher and nun was warned yesterday that she faces a lengthy prison sentence after secretly squandering pound;500,000 of her school's budget on shopping sprees and luxury holidays over a six-year period.
Colleen McCabe, 50, the former head of St John Rigby college in West Wickham, Kent, used her school Barclaycard with a monthly limit of pound;7,500 to fund a lavish lifestyle which involved a holiday for her parents on the Orient Express, treating family members to expensive jewellery and spending up to pound;255 a time on shoes.
While she splashed out, the school library was half empty, teachers were ordered to clean classrooms and pupils were left shivering throughout a whole winter because a broken boiler was not repaired.
Miss McCabe, who was appointed to the post of principal at the Roman Catholic school in 1991 two years after joining, began to abuse her position in the run-up to the Christmas of 1994 by buying shoes with money which should have been used to repair the broken boiler and clean dirty classrooms.
But her weakness for treating herself out of school funds soon spiralled out of control and from 1994 until 1999, when her exploits were finally discovered by auditors, she spent pound;7,278 on 90 pairs of shoes. She also had numerous luxury holidays.
The former nun, who for 15 years had lived an ascetic life in the convent of the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, also spent pound;15,300 on jewellery, pound;4,400 of which she spent during holidays to the Maltese island of Gozo, where she blew pound;1,366 in one jewellery shop.
The headmistress, who during her time in holy orders had worked on a project to help prostitutes and at a Birmingham school, also lavished a further pound;15,500 on herself and family and friends in restaurants, gift shops, museums and airport boutiques, once spending pound;1,000 in one day on last-minute holiday shopping.
In 1999, she made 61 transactions worth a total of pound;8,480 in four weeks, including four trips to Tesco which left the school pound;520 poorer.
The school bursar, Maureen Stapley, 41, of Addiscombe, Surrey, who was a co-defendant at the two month long trial at Southwark Crown Court, was cleared of six charges of deception.
Miss McCabe was convicted of 11 sample counts of theft and six of deception.
Detective Sergeant Richard Ward of Kent police said: "The headmistress's greed was simply staggering and she betrayed her pupils, their parents, her staff and her profession.
"Day after day for years she squandered school money with no thought for the children it was meant for. It was really quite obscene."
Andrew Wilcken, prosecuting, said that those entrusted with the school's finances had shown a complete disregard for basic accounting principles.
Miss McCabe's multiple thefts only came to light when St John Rigby changed from grant-maintained to voluntary status, thus bringing the school's finances under the auspices of Bromley council, he said.
Miss McCabe, who collapsed after Tuesday's verdict, panicked and cancelled the Barclaycard in November 1999 when she was told that auditors would be inspecting the school's finances.
But within hours of arriving, the auditors were reporting grave concerns to the school authorities and Ms McCabe resigned early in 2000.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Southwark said: "It is highly regrettable that Miss McCabe abused her position at the school by committing acts of dishonesty.
"The offences took place during a period when the school opted out of diocesan and local education authority control to become grant maintained, which was against the then diocesan policy.
"St John Rigby has since returned to voluntary aided status and much good work has been done in recent years by the new headteacher, Mr John Stanley."
The web of deceit woven by Miss McCabe meant that other staff members were showered with benefits and free trips without realising that they were being financed through misappropriated funds, the court heard.
The college chaplain, Father Richard Plunkett, is thought to have received benefits worth pound;34,200 as a result of payments made on his behalf by Miss McCabe, who invited him to accompany her on three expenses-paid holidays to Malta.
When the auditors began to close in on her, she tried to bribe him into forging receipts, the court heard.
Canon John Watts, chairman of the school governors, received benefits worth pound;27,870 at the school's expense, a pound;1,850 trip to Bahrain, Dohar and Abu Dhabi and a Crystal Palace season ticket. A total of pound;29,180 will now be repaid to the school for the benefits received by the two men, Canon Martin Lee, financial secretary of the Diocese of Southwark said.
Throughout the trial, Miss McCabe denied what she had done and attempted to justify her uncontrollable spending, which also involved making cash withdrawls from school accounts. She said that much of what she had spent had been for the benefit of the pupils.
She claimed that the money spent on jewellery had been to replace items lost by children during PE lessons, and that many of the enormous bills for clothes had been for purchases made to kit pupils out for interviews.
She also said she had bought religious artefacts, carpets, heaters, televisions, videos and computers for the school with the money she took.
However, her attempts to construct a coherent defence were met with ridicule in court, with the prosecution barrister asking: "What about a string-bottomed bikini and a translucent handbag? What sort of interview may a child wish to obtain with that?"
Judge Christopher Elwen, who ordered probation and psychiatric reports and released Miss McCabe on bail until August 15 when she will be sentenced, told her: "Prison is inevitable for this really disgraceful breach of trust."
WHAT THEY SAID OUT OF COURT
Dan Tranter, 61, was the deputy head at St John Rigby when McCabe arrived as senior mistress in 1989. Branding her a "female version of Saddam Hussein", he said: "If you got in her way she would destroy you. She was a despot and under her reign of tyranny, a thriving school suffered immeasurably."
One former parent-governor said: "She (McCabe) would surround herself with a little clique of hangers-on. She was totally manipulative, totally ruthless. Few dared cross her."
Another former member of the school's administrative staff said McCabe was "like a big spider ready to pounce at the first whiff of rebellion".
Gill Adams, a former clerical assistant, arrived at the school in 1987 and was to remain for 12 years. She said: "We were always being told resources were scarce and that was why they couldn't clean the classrooms. They were absolutely filthy. Then McCabe came up with a solution - she ordered teachers to do it.
"I can remember posting the J-cloths and spray bottles of Mr Muscle in the pigeonholes of faculty heads."