THE treasurer of a Colchester masonic lodge stole more than £70,000 from the group to pay off spiralling credit card debts.

A judge told Harry Traverse only his previous good character and abject shame meant he would stay out of jail for defrauding the St Giles Masonic Association, based in St John’s Green, Colchester, over more than five years.

Traverse, 76, admitted six charges of theft when he appeared before Chelmsford Crown Court.

Retired engineer Traverse, 76, of Windsor Court, Brightlingsea, was sentenced to eight months in prison, suspended for two years.

Recorder Nigel Lithman told him: “You stole an exceptional sum of money.

“You were only thinking of yourself and as a result, you have now jeopardised a club where you were held in high esteem.

“They deserve better from you and you need to be better by your own high standards.

“My duty is to send out a message to the community this behaviour should not be tolerated.”

However, the judge said he was being lenient because of Traverse’s good character and obvious shame.

He explained: “You have committed a great wrong, but I amsatisfied you are a man of good character.

“In case my decision is ever reviewed, I have sat and looked you in the eye and made an assessment of your character.”

Traverse became lodge treasurer in 1998 and started taking money from it in 2007, continuing until 2012, taking money three or four times a month, in an effort to to pay credit card bills.

He was caught after the Inland Revenue contacted the lodge about £70,000 it was owed in unpaid tax.

When questioned, he had immediately confessed.

The court heard Traverse had been expecting to inherit a significant sum and had planned to use this to repay the money he took from the association.

Instead, he received just a fraction of what he had expected – nowhere near enough to pay off his debt.

His lawyer, Matthew Swash, said his client had spent his own money on organisations for which he had been working.

He said: “He would work 30 hours a week, but never felt he could ask for help because he didn’t want to accept he was in trouble.

“He has accepted he was wrong. He did not live a lavish lifestyle. The money was used to keep the wolves from the door.

“Mr Traverse knows his family is ashamed.

“He has said: ‘I will die a criminal’.

“He is ashamed of who he is.”