Published on: December 10, 2015 | Last Updated: December 10, 2015 4:36 PM EST
Trevor Wilhelm, Windsor Star
A disgraced man of the cloth will retain the title of priest despite being found guilty Thursday of stealing as much as $234,000 from his own church.
A jury needed just a few hours of deliberation to find Rev. Robert Couture guilty of theft over $5,000.
Spokeswoman Emma Moynihan said the London diocese won’t move to have the former pastor of Tecumseh’s St. Anne Parish defrocked, but they also don’t plan to put him back in a church.
“He will still have the title of priest but he won’t have any of his faculties,” she said, adding the diocese only tries to defrock priests in sexual abuse cases. “It’s very difficult to get the title of priest removed. It’s a decision that the pope has to make. So as of right now it is unlikely that title will be removed.”
From 2002 to 2010, when he was put on administrative leave, Couture stole between $170,000 and $234,000 from Ste. Anne Parish. He did it by pilfering from collection plates, donations from funerals, weddings, baptisms and mass donations, and what the prosecutor called a “bogus” bank account he set up in the church’s name.
When Couture was arrested in 2013 after a two-year probe, Essex County OPP initially said he stole more than $180,000. The jury heard the amount could be as high as $234,000. Assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan said during trial that the true amount will likely never be known.
Couture pilfered money from collection plates, what Meehan called a “bogus” bank account he set up in the church’s name and donations from funerals, weddings and baptisms.
Meehan said he will likely seek jail time for Couture. He wasn’t sure what sentence he will argue for, but said the maximum is 10 years.
“The church and the parishioners trusted this person and their trust was violated,” Meehan said Thursday outside court. “We should all be able to trust someone, especially someone in a position of authority, and that trust was breached.”
Jurors began deliberations around 5 p.m. Wednesday following closing arguments and a two-hour charge by Superior Court Justice Scott Campbell. They broke off around 8:30 p.m. then notified the court shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday they had reached a verdict.
The jurors were given mountains of documents and testimony from about 20 people to consider during their deliberations. Bishop Ronald Fabbro and Couture himself were among those to take the witness stand.
“There were a number of schemes involved in this case, so the evidence was as complicated as the schemes that were behind them,” said Meehan. “He put a lot of thought into the way that he stole money from Ste. Anne’s Parish and that’s reflected in all the witnesses and all the paperwork. So it took some time to get it all out.”
Despite all that paperwork, defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme said he believes it came down to credibility.
“I believe that juries listen to evidence and decide issues of credibility and decide issues of what parts of the evidence they accept or don’t accept,” said Ducharme. “I’m not so sure they spend all their time trying to be accountants or semi-accountants on their own. I don’t know exactly what they considered but I think this was a case about credibility.”
The former pastor remains free until his sentencing hearing, which hasn’t been scheduled yet. He left the courthouse without talking to reporters.
“He’s very disappointed,” said Ducharme. “It’s definitely a serious matter for him. It’s life-altering because he loves to teach and loves what he did with the church. All those things will probably change. That’s what happens when you have a result like this.”
He had yet to discuss a possible appeal with his client but added that Couture still maintains he is innocent.
“When you work hard on a case and you deliver an argument to the jury, you hope you’re successful,” said Ducharme. “So we’re disappointed. But we respect this system, we respect the jury for rendering its verdict. We asked the jury to make the decision and they gave their decision and we’ll absolutely respect the decision they made.”
Moynihan acknowledged the conviction won’t do much to help the diocese’s image, already tarnished by repeated sex abuse scandals. But she said diocese officials “hope and pray” the conviction can bring people some closure.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said Moynihan. “But we’ve taken all the actions that we can to rectify the situation and we’ve put more precautions in place. Of course it’s going to hurt our image but I think we’ve done everything that we can and parishioners and staff are very understanding and have been very helpful in the entire process. And I think they are probably happy with the outcome.”
(Click here to access article in Windsor Star wit VIDEO clip of interview of Assistant Crown Tom Meehan)
Rev. Robert Couture convicted of embezzling from church to fund Disney trips, fine dining
Priest used stolen cash to fund lavish lifestyle, including trips to Europe, New York
CBC News Posted: Dec 10, 2015 10:56 AM ET Last Updated: Dec 10, 2015 3:53 PM ET
Assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan said Thursday he will seek jail time for Rev. Robert Couture.
Couture could face up to 10 years in jail, Meehan said outside the Ontario court of justice in Windsor.
Couture, 52, was released on a promise to appear Feb. 5, when a date will be set for sentencing.
Jurors began deliberations at 5 p.m. Wednesday before breaking at 8:30 p.m. They returned a guilty verdict at about 10 a.m. Thursday.
Meehan said he was pleased with the jury’s verdict, calling Couture a trusted figure in the community who broke that trust.
During the trial, which started Nov. 24, the jury heard Couture used the money on trips to Europe, New York, Disney theme parks and fine dining.
Couture was parish priest at Ste. Anne Parish’s church in Tecumseh, just east of Windsor, when parish officials asked KPMG to conduct a forensic audit of the church’s books. That investigation found thousands of dollars in missing funds between 2002 and 2010, and prompted the parish to contact police.
Ontario Provincial Police said the audit revealed at least $169,000 in irregularities, and Couture was charged with one count of theft over $5,000 nearly two years ago.
The Crown accused Couture of stealing in several ways, including taking money from collection plates and charging fees to funeral homes.
Couture would charge $260 for “prayer teams” to come to funerals, but he would then give the church cheques for only $125 to $140, and pocket the rest.
Second bank account
Couture told the jury he opened a second account for Ste. Anne without permission from the diocese.
When asked by the Crown why he needed this separate TD Bank account, considering Ste. Anne’s already had an account at National Bank, Couture said he used his “pastoral judgment.”
Couture was the only person able to access the account, which he said he opened in order to simplify the distribution of money donated from his parishioners. He also said the bank account allowed him to give money discreetly to financially struggling parishioners and avoid shaming them in front of people.
Couture testified he took money from the candle donation box and, for the most part, used that cash to fill petty cash.
The priest earned an estimated $85,000 a year before taxes, according to evidence presented in court.
His diocesan salary was $35,000, including $12,000 for his room and board. Couture earned an additional $10,000 as a school board trustee and $3,000 from teaching.
The rest, about $40,000, came from services such as funerals, weddings and baptisms, he said.
Defence lawyer Pat Ducharme called the verdict “life altering” and said he has yet to discuss with his client whether to appeal the decision.
Diocese prays for closure
Couture remains a priest.
Following the verdict, the Diocese of London insisted it has measures in place to keep finances in check.
“The criminal justice system has taken its course. We hope and pray that the verdict and subsequent sentencing may bring some measure of closure for all those involved,” diocesan communications co-ordinator Emma Moynihan said in an emailed statement.
Moynihan said the diocese has a number of financial security controls in place that are enhanced often, including:
- Audits of parishes, at the time of a pastor change or every five years, whichever comes first. These have been conducted since 1970.
- Annual audits of the Diocese of London, including the parishes, by an independent public accounting firm.
- Two signatures required on all cheques, both at the Diocese of London chancery offices and for all parish bank accounts.
- An internal audit program, developed in conjunction with the diocesan audit committee and an independent auditing firm, which began in 2011.
Moynihan said not all of the security measures were in place during the time Couture was stealing from the church.
Former Tecumseh Priest Found Guilty Of Theft
10 December 2015
A jury has found former Tecumseh priest Robert Couture guilty of theft over $5,000.
The jury deliberated for less than 12 hours going over evidence presented by the crown that showed up to $230,000 was missing from Ste. Anne’s Parish.
Assistant Crown Attorney Tom Meehan says he is not surprised by the decision based on the evidence presented in the case.
“He’s a human being who was charged with doing this and the jury found that he did it. It’s difficult because he’s someone that, as a priest, is held in high esteem by the community so that might be an additional challenge, but the facts always speak for themselves,” says Meehan.
Couture could face up to ten years in prison, but Meehan says the crown has not decided what they will be asking for during sentencing.
“Your place in the community is partly why you got away with this, so I think that goes both ways. I think it’s something for and against him that he held this position because he said that the priest was like the CEO, well if he hadn’t been CEO and been trusted he wouldn’t have been able to do this,” says Meehan.
A sentencing trial will be set on February 5, 2016. Couture remains out on bail until that time.
“He’s very disappointed, it’s definitely a seriously matter for him. It’s life altering because he loves to teach and he loved what he did with the church, so all those things will probably change, but that’s what happens when you have a result like this,” says defense lawyer Patrick Ducharme.
Ducharme says Couture maintains his innocence.
Theft suspect Rev. Robert Couture awaits jury verdict
The Windsor Star
Published on: December 9, 2015 | Last Updated: December 9, 2015 8:52 PM EST
After sitting through a trial that lasted nearly three weeks with testimony from about 20 people, a jury began Wednesday evening deciding the fate of Rev. Robert Couture.
The former pastor of Ste. Anne Parish in Tecumseh is charged with theft over $5,000. He is accused of stealing between $170,000 and $234,000 from the church from 2002 to 2010.
Couture allegedly pilfered money from collection plates, a bank account he set up in the church’s name and donations from funerals, weddings and baptisms. The prosecution said Couture required fees for doing services then pocketed the money.
The trial began Nov. 23 with jury selection. That jury of three women and nine men retired to deliberate shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday, after Superior Court Justice Scott Campbell spent nearly two hours giving them instructions. He reviewed the evidence, discussed the rules of law and gave jurors the parameters of their job. The jury failed to reach a verdict late Wednesday.
The jury will resume deliberation at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Earlier in the day, the defence and prosecution gave their closing arguments.
Defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme reminded the jury there has to be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
“That’s a high standard,” he said.
Ducharme stressed his client is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Couture didn’t have to testify, said Ducharme, but he did.
“He chose to testify, put himself on the witness stand, subjected himself to scrutiny,” said Ducharme.
He said Couture’s defence is “straightforward.”
“He says to you ‘I did not steal any money from Ste. Anne’s Parish,” Ducharme told the jury. “He says the money that belonged to the parish went to the parish.”
One of the issues Ducharme addressed was an unauthorized TD bank account Couture set up in the church’s name.
Ducharme said Couture did the same thing for 7 ½ years at St. Patrick’s church in London, and went through two audits there. There was never an issue, he said. There were also audits at Ste. Anne.
“There was not a word about this,” said Ducharme.
He said Couture used that account to make it easier to pay other priests and help the needy by protecting the identity of both people who donated to charity and those who received it.
Ducharme said Couture never forced people to give him fees or donations, he simply accepted gifts that were offered.
“The intention of the donor is ‘here Father, thank-you for doing this,’” said Ducharme.
Assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan painted a different picture. He said Couture “systematically abused his position.”
“It is an unhappy and demoralizing story about the abuse of power people should have had trust in and did have trust,” said Meehan.
He said Couture “monetized Ste. Anne to perfection.” Instead of a place of worship, said Meehan, Couture turned the church into a “religion factory” requiring fees and donations for services that he pocketed.
“If I make you give me a present, it’s not a present.”
Couture did it all out of a sense of entitlement, said Meehan.
“He spent the vast majority of the money on himself, apparently because he was the hardest-working priest in the diocese,” he said.
He said Couture “brazenly and without authority” set up the TD account.
Meehan said the only evidence there is that Couture used the account to help the needy is his “say-so.”
“He treated the money that came into the church as his,” said Meehan.
He said Couture preyed on peoples’ trust. Even with abuse scandals and cynicism in 2015, said Meehan, “there is still enough of a reservoir of confidence in people.”
Meehan added that most of the money Couture is accused of stealing was cash and taken over time, making it hard to trace.
“This was nearly the perfect crime.”
Jury deliberates fate of former Tecumseh priest
Published Wednesday, December 9, 2015 10:37AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 9, 2015 6:36PM EST
Closing submissions began Wednesday morning in the case of Robert Couture, a former priest at Ste. Anne Roman Catholic Church who is facing one count of theft over $5,000.
The jury began deliberating Wednesday afternoon
In court Wednesday, defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme spoke to the jury, recapping Couture’s testimony that he “did not steal any money from the parish.”
Essex County OPP completed a lengthy investigation dating back to 2002. Police say a financial audit of the parishes’ accounts yielded about $180,000 in irregularities.
Officials from Ste. Anne Parish notified the OPP in August of 2011, regarding an internal theft that occurred between 2002 and 2010.
Couture’s trial started on Nov. 24.
Deliberations begin in Robert Couture Trial
December 09, 2015 01:37 from Teresinha Medeiros
(Robert Couture outside of the Windsor courthouse December 2015)
Deliberations have begun at the trial of a former Tecumseh priest charged with theft over $5000.
Robert Couture is accused of taking up to $230 000 from St. Anne’s Parish from 2002 to 2010.
After hearing testimony for more than 2 weeks, the jury heard final submissions from the crown and defence.
In addressing the jury, the defence says the case is simple. Defence Lawyer Pat Ducharme says Couture did not steal any money from the church and there is no evidence of misappropriation.
Ducharme says Couture’s $90 000 salary was due to Couture’s work ethic by performing 1200 services a year such as masses, funerals, wedding and baptisms.
The crown says this is an unhappy and demoralizing case because a priest is accused of stealing thousands and thousands of dollars from the church.
Crown Tom Meeham argued it was almost the perfect crime because Couture is a priest, held in high regard and most of the theft was in cash which is hard to track.
All the articles related to the Father Robert Couture GUILTY verdict are posted above, along with articles from yesterday advising the case had gone to the jury.
Note that the Crown will be asking for jail time. And, note that Father Couture is not sure yet if or not he will appeal. The thing is that in order to appeal there have to be legal reasons to appeal. A lawyer can’t just file an appeal without giving reasons which he/she believe are grounds for the appeal, and then, a court of appeal has to agree to hear the appeal.
Anyway, time will tell if an appeal is filed. Obviously his decision to go for a trial by jury did not serve him well!
His next court date is 03 February 2016 when a date will be set for sentencing. I don’t know if there will be a sentencing hearing first, followed by sentencing?
Father Couture is out on bail until his February court date. I trust that he will not be permitted to shepherd any flock anywhere during the Christmas season? that means no hearing confessions, and no offering up the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He is a convicted thief.
As far as I am aware he has not been hearing confessions or saying public Masses since he left us at Ste. Anne’s.
His soul is in need of prayer for repentance, conversion to the true Light of Christ. I pray that he doesn’t despair to the point of suicide.
This is left not deplorable sex abuse which is rampant within the whole church still.
The kind and learned judge who taught me criminal procedure in law school once remarked to me in private that in cases involving clergy members, those who insisted on testifying in their defense usually were not credible witnesses.
And so it is that we often forget that although Christ was sentenced to death the Scriptures remind us that Jesus had not in fact been convicted and that he did not testify in his own defense. The Scriptures also help us to remember that the Thief who crucified next to Jesus went to Heaven not only because he had recognized that Jesus was innocent but also because he had not denied his own guilt and humbly accepted his sentence.