A former chief priest of Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore has been sentenced to jail for six years for the crime of pawning SGD2.33 million worth of temple jewellery, meant for the adornment of the temple’s Hindu deities.
The crime was committed over a period of about five years, and was discovered much later, as the priest, now aged 39, always managed to redeem the pawned jewellery before the temple’s annual audit. In his defence, the former priest, named Kandasamy Senapathi, said that he was helping out a friend’s mother, who was undergoing treatment for cancer.
It has been reported that the temple’s ceremonial jewellery was pawned more than 170 times over the years, and the priest received SGD2.33 million from pawn shops.
Senapathi was sentenced to prison on May 30, after pleading guilty to two charges of criminal breach of trust by dishonest misappropriation and two charges of transferring criminal proceeds out of the country.
Sri Mariamman Temple, located on South Bridge Road, is the oldest Hindu Temple in Singapore, and is managed by the Hindu Endowments Board. The convicted ex-priest was employed by the Board from December 2013; he became chief priest in July 2018.
Long before he became chief priest, Senapathi was given access to the large amount of gold jewellery (some 255 pieces of them), including the code of the safe in which the deities’ jewellery was stored within the temple sanctum. The ceremonial jewellery was put on the deities on special occasions. The safe contents regularly underwent external auditing.
Senapathi had devised a system by which he would pawn some of the deities’ jewellery — he knew exactly when which sets of jewellery would be required for temple ceremonies — and then he would redeem the pawned jewellery with money that he received for pawning another set of jewellery. This started in 2016 and went on for years.
The money that he made by pawning was partly deposited in his Singapore bank account and partly transferred to an Indian bank account.
His offences came to light when an audit was organised at an unscheduled time because of the pandemic. The priest lied, saying that he had left the key to the jewellery storage unit back in India, but the temple’s finance team was willing to break the safe for the audit. At that point, with several pieces of gold still in pawn shops, Senapathi knew that he would get caught, and he confessed.
He borrowed money to redeem the pawned jewellery, returned the jewellery pieces to the temple, and resigned as a temple priest. The audit went ahead and there was no loss of jewellery. But the temple finance team still reported the matter to Singapore Police.
When the case went to trial, counsel for the defendant pleaded for leniency, whereas the prosecutor said that the accused should not be given a light punishment since he had committed a serious breach of trust.