A GULF war veteran robbed a Catholic priest at knifepoint after breaking into his presbytery in the middle of the night.

Drug addict John O’Brien confronted St John Fisher priest Father Bryan Cunningham on the stairs of his home off Manchester Road, Kearsley.

Bolton Crown Court heard how O’Brien demanded, ‘give me the money or I’ll stab you’, stole up to £200 and then calmly rang for a taxi to take him to a train station.

Sentencing O’Brien to six years in prison, Recorder Michael Hayton QC told him: “This is not only a very serious offence of the gravest order it is also a very mean offence.

“He [Fr Cunningham] must have been terrified. You should feel safe in your own home. He will not, if ever again, for many years and that is your fault.”

Brian Berlyne, prosecuting, told the court how O’Brien went to St John Fisher RC Church on the afternoon of January 31.

The funeral of O’Brien’s father had been held there 12 months earlier.

Mr Berlyne said 48-year-old O’Brien asked volunteer Jan Barucki for £30, but was told there was no money available and was offered a cup of tea instead.

When Mr Barucki returned he found O’Brien with the petty cash box in his hands. He put it back when requested and, when Fr Cunningham arrived a short time later, again asked for cash.

That night Fr Cunningham was asleep in bed when he was awoken at 3.10am by the sound of breaking glass.

O’Brien, with a scarf over his face and wearing gloves, had smashed a kitchen window and climbed inside.

The priest left his bed and was confronted on the stairs by O’Brien threatening to stab him.

Fr Cunningham retreated to his bedroom but O’Brien followed, banging loudly on the door until the priest came out and went to get the cash box from the kitchen.

The robber then picked up a knife.

“At that point Fr Cunningham began to fear for his safety,” said Mr Berlyne.

After handing over between £100 and £200 the priest told O’Brien to go outside.

O’Brien then called for a taxi and, when he was arrested later that day, £345 was found on him and GPS on his phone showed he had been at the church.

O’Brien, of Waverley Avenue, Kearsley, pleaded guilty to robbery and the court heard that he has a previous conviction for robbing a post office in 1997.

Nicholas Ross, defending, stressed that while on bail awaiting sentence O’Brien has kept out of trouble.

“Sadly, the trigger for this very serious offence was his drug addiction,” he said, adding that the defendant has been using heroin and crack cocaine for 20 years.

Mr Ross added that O’Brien had turned to drugs and crime after leaving the army.

He had served for nine years with the 3rd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Northern Ireland and the first Gulf War where 10 of his colleagues were killed in a friendly fire incident.

Mr Ross added that in 2005 O’Brien was assaulted and a coma for three months and was left with a brain injury. The court heard that O’Brien has written a letter of apology for Fr Cunningham.

“He is remorseful and he wishes to express personally that sorrow and regret,” said Mr Ross.

He praised Fr Cunningham for the way he handled the robber, avoiding the situation escalating.

“Fr Cunningham clearly conducted himself in a very commendable and calm fashion,” said Mr Ross.

Recorder Hayton told O’Brien that his behaviour had been ‘terrible’, especially as the church had offered his family comfort and succour at the time of his father’s death. He said: “Your understanding was that the victim was the priest who had presided over the funeral of your father 12 months earlier. In fact, it was his predecessor.”