The former principal of a Burlington County high school would serve five years in state prison, and pay back more than $400,000 from school accounts, under a plea agreement reached this week.

Joseph Lemme, 50, was hired in 2002 to head Holy Cross High School in Delran, the only Roman Catholic high school in the county.

During his four-year tenure, Lemme was hailed by the Diocese of Trenton for raising academic standards and creating a new media center and dance studio at the 750-student school.

He was fired in November 2006 after the diocese discovered "financial irregularities" in accounts to which he had exclusive access.

Lemme pleaded guilty Monday to theft and misapplication of entrusted property in Monmouth County Superior Court, said Luis A. Valentin, the county prosecutor.

Under the terms of his plea agreement, Lemme must serve five years in state prison and repay $415,848.88 to the school, Valentin said. He will be formally sentenced on Feb. 15.

"Mr. Lemme's guilty plea is an important step in bringing closure and healing to the community," said Rayanne Bennett, spokeswoman for the diocese. "We are pleased that he is taking responsibility for the crimes he has committed against those who placed their trust in him."

Lemme admitted he routed money collected for field trips, book and uniform sales and tuition to his personal bank account, Valentin said.

"His actions demonstrate the highest level of betrayal," Valentin said.

Lemme also acknowledged he doctored documents to appear as though he paid for school furniture and equipment with his personal credit card. Lemme submitted the documents and requested a reimbursement of about $30,000, Valentin said.

Lemme's attorney, Michael J. Pappa, did not return a call for comment last night.

Contact staff writer Sam Wood

at 856-779-3838 or samwood@phillynews.com.