Rosary beads
The four-man gang swindled elderly clergymen as part of a 'revenge' plot formulated by a man who said he was abused by a priest as a child Dan Kitwood/Getty

A man who said he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child has been jailed for four years after fronting a gang which targeted 158 clergymen in a lucrative scam. The group's ringleader, named only as Michel, said he was motivated by "revenge" when he first targeted elderly members of the church in 2009.

The four-man gang, aged 46-61, was convicted at the Paris Criminal Court on Wednesday (24 February) with the fraud amounting to about €300,000 (£237,000, $331,000). They received sentences ranging from six months to four years in prison, the Metronews reported.

The four-year swindle saw the group contact numerous churches pretending to be local parishioners to gain their trust. They would then ask for handouts after giving a fake sob story, saying they had fallen on hard times and were in desperate need financial help.

The elaborate scam was first orchestrated by Michel, who said he wanted payback against the Catholic Church for abuse he claimed to have suffered as a child in France. His defence lawyer said the 59-year-old had written to the local bishop and the Vatican about being sexually abused by priests who worked at Les Orphelins d'Auteil, a non-profit Catholic foundation set up to help needy children. The allegations were not pursued, the court heard, because the priests in question were dead.

Using false names, jurors heard how Michel began swindling money from priests and received cheques ranging from a few hundred Euros to several thousand.

It was when Michel was jailed in 2010 that his friend, Jacky, took over the operation and began defrauding more members of the clergy. The 61-year-old said he was not motivated by hatred of the church, instead saying he needed to fund his gambling addiction. He later enrolled co-defendants Denis, 46, and Karim, 52, to join the scam and help collect payments from priests.

The prosecution described the gang's operation as an "extremely well-tested procedure" which targeted "vulnerable" elderly victims. Jacky was sentenced to two years in prison while Denis and Karim received six months suspended sentence each for receiving stolen goods.

Michel said he had since returned €26,000 out of guilt for his part in the scam.