Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Confessional

"[The Catholic Church forgives, preparing to to welcome its wayward son back to the fold] Aware of his many talents and of his 25 years of effective pastoral ministry, we will work with Fr. LeClair in his desire to return to the exercise of his priestly ministry.
"Despite this difficult decision affecting Fr. LeClair's life, I know that he is relieved to have this painful moment behind him. I share his desire, and that of the many people who supported him over the last two years, to move on and to look to the future."
"For a number of reasons, including the need of our Catholic Church to be transparent about such matters and to resolve what had become a highly publicized matter, the decision was made to refer this issue to the police with the expectation that the case would be treated fairly and thoroughly."
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, Archdiocese of Ottawa
Father Joe LeClair pleads guilty to fraud and theft
Father Joe Leclair, left, arrives at the Ottawa courthouse in the company of his lawyer, Matt Webber.  Photograph by: Chris Mikula , Ottawa Citizen
Indeed, Archbishop Prendergast has been faulted where the pilfering priest has not been. Parishioners of the Blessed Sacrament Church parish were distinctly and decidedly displeased with the move by the higher authority within the archdiocese to reach out to public law and order for an investigation into Fr. LeClair's then-purported transgressions. What, after all, is a superior to do, under the circumstances? When charges of ignoring the dreadful sexual molestation assaults by priests against children, preferring to keep the scandal closed within the house of the church and dealt with internally brought bitter condemnation against the church hierarchy?

Doubtless, had it been a discreet affair, the unfortunate affair more deftly handled, discovered within the church and delegated to the church to find a solution for, rather than having had it leaked to the public media where an investigative journalist probing the issue came up with damning evidence that made front page news, the matter would never have been referred to the local police for investigation. But that was not the case, for there were some members of the diocese scandalized by the emerging knowledge of Fr. LeClair's surrender to vice and criminality paid for courtesy of the laity.

The emerging revelations that scandalized a city that likes to think of itself as both cosmopolitan and forgivingly understanding, led to the church launching a forensic audit of accounts. While the public understanding was that the man beloved by so many for his kind generosity and unflinching dedication to the well-being of his parishioners was in fact despite his many positive attributes a "pathological gambler", who gave unstintingly of himself but also took unstintingly of funding the church required to remain a functioning enterprise, rumours ran amok.

He had obviously viewed the well-being of those who trusted him as a matter of his ultimate and first concern. And he did minister to their needs, gaining their trust and admiration in the process. And they, in turn, now view his lapse into the seamy side of all-too human fallibility as a forgivable sin balanced against the unmitigated good and decency they saw in him. He had taken from the church hundreds of thousands of dollars to fuel his gambling addiction, and he falsely claimed that the money he used was his; at no time did he commit a criminal act absconding with money not his own.

On Monday his former parishioners crowded the courtroom where Father LeClair was to hear his sentence as he pleaded "guilty" to the charges of fraud, reflecting an agreed statement of facts. Ontario Court Justice Jack Nadelle heard from Assistant Crown Attorney Peter Napier of the accounting audit conducted to parse church finances. The Deloitte and Touche audit revealed that 1.16-million had been deposited into Fr. LeClair's account between January 2006 and December 2010, $769,000 of which represented salary, stipends and gifts or casino winnings.

Anyone might deduce that this was an extremely generous remuneration for the work of a priest in discharging his obligations both to the church and to his parishioners. That left $400,000 of the $1.16 million unaccounted for. Despite which Mr. Napier accepted on the basis of the plea deal that Fr. LeClair had defrauded Blessed Sacrament of $130,000. In addition, Father LeClair had written $61,800-worth of cheques to himself over a 5-year frame from the church's mass account.

Those cheques were used most often to pay down Father LeClair's credit card debt reflecting his gambling losses. "Under the rules of the church and the parish, Father LeClair was not entitled to receive these funds that he claimed as stipends", Mr. Napier read to the court from the agreed statement of facts. Fr. LeClair had admitted to the lead police investigator that he had illegally absorbed $35,000 from the church's marriage preparation course revenue stream to pay off his gambling debts, out of a total of $157,000 paid by couples for the course in a five-year period.

Collection plate money accounted for an additional $16,000 that Father LeClair appropriated for his personal use, as well. Father LeClair used the trust invested in him to write a cheque from the parish account to repay a friend for a shared vacation. That cheque amounted to $5,700. On the other side of the scale, his supporters believe the balance still remains in the accused's favour, for he became Blessed Sacrament's priest when the "parish had all but ceased to exist". His personal effort, his dedication to his work, resulted in turning the church around with the number of parishioners and volunteers hugely expanding to his favour, leading to his damnation.

His lawyers emphasized how dedicated and overworked Father LeClair was as the numbers of people dependent on his wise counsel and aid during their personal times of distress amounted to a continued layering on of additional work. He became a parish priest who thought nothing of giving of himself well above and beyond the call of duty. His pastoral work absorbed every hour of his working day, from counselling parishioners, committing to home visits, visiting with the ill, and taking part in 30 church committees, along with presiding over all church events, masses, and officiating at weddings and funerals.

He was, in effect, the church and the church was his. Little wonder his conscience allowed him to take of the church's financial proceeds what he believed he required to enable him to endure his workload and get on with his job of advising, counselling, commiserating, interceding, placating and soothing injured souls. Doing the work of the Almighty. And for his excellence in meeting that vital human need those who once depended on his judgement and charity, compassion and humour, are anxious to welcome him back.

Once his sentence has been carried out.
Sentencing hearing continues for Rev. Joe LeClair

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