By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
A popular Ottawa priest who admitted last year to a gambling addiction was charged July 3 with one count each of theft, fraud, criminal breach of trust and laundering the proceeds of crime.
Father Joe LeClair, 55, will appear in court July 25 to answer the charges related to the financial administration of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood.
The Ottawa Police Organized Fraud investigation found more than $240,000 in parish cheques were “misappropriated by the parish priest, Joseph LeClair,” according to a July 3 news release, and “over $160,000 in cash revenues were unaccounted for.” The investigation reviewed parish finances from January 2006 to May 2011
The police found $20,000 worth of furniture and other parish property had been taken from the rectory and some of that was recovered at a residence outside the province.
The police launched the investigation after the Ottawa Archdiocese filed a complaint last summer after bringing in independent auditors to examine the parish finances in early 2011.
“Given the many people that Father LeClair has assisted as well as the several parishes which he has pastored during his 25 years of ministry, today is a sad day for our local Church in Ottawa,” said Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast in a statement. “Many people, in our Catholic community and beyond, will be hurt and disappointed by this news.”
“The events concerning Father LeClair which have come to light over the past year have obliged us to review our expectations of priests, as well as our care of them,” he said.
The archbishop pointed out priests “are in a position of trust” that includes “proper and transparent” administration of money and other goods from parishioners and donors.
Since the problems at Blessed Sacrament came to light, the archdiocese has launched a new financial protocol stressing greater controls, accountability and review, he said.
In April 2011, Father LeClair apologized to his parish and admitted to having a gambling addiction after the Ottawa Citizen published a series of articles about personal credit card bills of more than $490,000 and cash advances on his Visa card at a casino in Quebec. But he stressed he never used church funds to feed his gambling habit.
Father LeClair had been open with his parishioners about his struggle with depression. He is credited with reviving Blessed Sacrament from a nearly empty parish to a thriving community.
When the archdiocese turned the results of a six month forensic audit to Ottawa police nearly a year ago, Father LeClair’s lawyer was quoted at the time that he believed it would exonerate the priest.
The Citizen reported the parish collections would often sit in canvas bags in LeClair’s unlocked rectory office, to be counted on Monday or Tuesday. Cheques could be written on the priest’s signature without a countersigner, the newspaper reported, and Father LeClair did not need to supply receipts.
The archbishop urged the Catholic community to pray for both Father LeClair and the faithful of Blessed Sacrament parish who “have been particularly burdened and pained by what has happened over the last year.”
Ottawa Police Organized Fraud Section St. Richard Dugal urged all charitable organizations to have “clear and up-to-date fiscal management practices,” that include “proper checks and balances and an arm’s length regular review process.”
“Many such organizations rely on volunteers and well-meaning individuals to assist but without proper fiscal management practices, it leaves the organizations vulnerable to abuse,” Dugal said.