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

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Fr. Joe X-Mas"?

"Every time he took some money, he was committing a criminal offence."
"The accused did not stop his criminal activity voluntarily and seek help. He was caught, and even when caught, or knowing he was about to be caught, he lied to his parishioners."
Ontario Court Justice Jack Nadelle

"Father Joe will survive. He's obviously in a state of shock right now. He fully expected or he was told this was very possible, if not the likely result, and he was ready for it."
Matthew Webber, defence lawyer

"[The sentence] will do no good for anyone. It will not make him regret it more than he now does. Addiction is a sickness. I'm not saying what he did wasn't bad, but he is no threat to society in any way, shape or form."
Joanne Licari, Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church parishioner
Father Joe LeClair was sentenced to one year in jail Wednesday for fraud and breach of trust.
Father Joe LeClair was sentenced to one year in jail Wednesday for fraud and breach of trust.  Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto, Ottawa Citizen

When Father Joe LeClair first came to Blessed Sacrament back  in 1997, church attendance was dismal and Sunday collections hardly sufficed to support the elderly church. But he was energetic and set himself the task to bring about a change at the Glebe parish. Music became an integral part of services, he recruited university students, he opened the parish doors to anyone who cared to come, from distant neighbourhoods.

What resulted was a thriving, wealthy parish. And Father LeClair became one of the most recognized church figures in Ottawa. He officiated at socially prominent weddings and his immense popularity with those who relied upon his wisdom and judgement, good nature and optimistic outlook was immense. That, his lawyer insisted, was his downfall. His very popularity and the incessant calls on his judgement created a pathology of stress, anxiety and depression.

He became incapable of coping, yet was determined to continue to meet the spiritual and emotional requirements of the growing congregation, where, it seemed just about everyone was heavily reliant on him for one reason or another. To cope, and to relieve his unbearable stress load, he turned to alcohol and that led to a passion for gambling. "It allowed his life to spiral out of control and to run afoul of the law", stated Justice Nadelle.

When an inquisitive journalist who had heard rumours decided to do a little investigative work, the results of his curiosity were published in the local newspaper, leading to the unravelling of a life of trust misplaced and careless deception. A news story revealed issues of gambling, the priest's credit card debts and the complete lack of financial controls at the Blessed Sacrament church.

With the release of that information, Father LeClair admitted his gambling problem, but adamantly denied ever having taken money from church funds.

On January 20 of this year he finally pleaded guilty to theft and fraud, following two years of proclaiming innocence of misplaced suspicions; his honourable intent, integrity and honesty were not to be impugned. And his parishioners rushed to his side in his defence. Even those who believed the accusations defended him, accepting the explanation that his overwork and tireless efforts on behalf of the parish led him to the parlous state he was in emotionally.

He was not to blame. Given that level of support and the fact that when all of this is finally behind him and his release from prison has become a reality (perhaps in four months' time, since it is anticipated that he will be the very model of a model prisoner) he will have a position waiting for him, back in his old church where those who support him -- and they are legion -- will celebrate his return.

On Wednesday, in an Ottawa courthouse, Father LeClair was sentenced -- one year in jail, one year of probation, and an order for restitution of $134,000 to be returned to the church. The parish is already in receipt of a $379,000 insurance settlement for funds misappropriated from Blessed Sacrament during the five years of Father LeClair's tenure as pastor.

Justice Nadelle, when sentencing the priest, stated he could not possibly ignore the size of the fraud, its five-year duration or Father LeClair's strenuous efforts to lie past his problems, deflecting blame toward parish administrations, not his own frail lapses. The justice pointed out the number of ways money was stolen from the church.

Father LeClair wrote cheques to himself from church accounts, overcharged for personal expenses, helped himself to Sunday collections and redirected fees for marriage preparation courses to his personal accounts.

Tellingly, pointed out Judge Nadelle, $5,700 was used of church funds to pay for a vacation in the Dominican resort city of Punta Cana. Written on the cheque that Father LeClair made out to himself was the legend "Fr.Joe X-mas".

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