The Windsor Star
Published on: November 30, 2015 | Last Updated: November 30, 2015 9:29 PM EST
Trevor Wilhelm, Windsor Star
The bishop of the London diocese testified Monday that a priest charged with stealing claimed he was charging unauthorized wedding fees to play “hardball” with people wanting to use the church.
Bishop Ronald Fabbro took the witness stand as week two of the trial against Robert Couture began.
“He should not be including a fee for himself,” said Fabbro.
“This idea of playing hardball I thought was not a good pastoral approach.”
Robert Couture, the former pastor of Ste. Anne Parish in Tecumseh, is charged with theft over $5,000. A forensic accountant told court last week Couture stole between $170,000 and $234,000 from 2002 to 2010.
Fabbro said Monday he received a complaint in 2004 from the parents of a couple who got married at Ste. Anne. He said the complaint from the family, referred to in court as the Majors, was about fees that Couture required.
The bishop said the complaint was that Couture charged $100 for the church plus $100 for himself and $50 for the altar servers.
“He shouldn’t have been charging particularly a fee for himself,” Fabbro told assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan. “That would be against diocesan policy.”
Fabbro wrote a letter to Couture about the complaint. The bishop said Couture responded that he needed to “play hardball,” because people were taking advantage of the church.
Fabbro said he told Couture that was against the diocese policy, which must be followed.
According to Fabbro, Couture told him he understood the policy.
The bishop received another complaint in 2005 from a man named Charles Dube about a similar issue. Dube was surprised the church was charging such a “high fee for a wedding.”
Again, Fabbro wanted answers from Couture. The priest responded with a letter stating that two brides from St. Jerome church, who were mostly “inactive,” wanted to get married at Ste. Anne because it was “prettier.”
Fabbro said Couture wrote that he informed the person complaining that the church was charging “double the going rate” for people outside of Ste. Anne who had “flimsy” reasons for using the church.
“They were users of the facility and myself,” Fabbro recited from Couture’s letter.
As for diocese policy, Couture wrote “I’m well aware of what it is.”
“When you play hardball with some people they get this idea that they can shame and humiliate you by going over your head to your boss,” Couture’s letter stated.
Under cross-examination from defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme, Fabbro said Couture did hundreds of weddings and those were the only two complaints he received.
Fabbro also acknowledged that the Majors were quite happy with the way Couture handled the actual ceremony.
“They were happy with the service, it was just this bitter thing about the fee,” said Fabbro.
David Savel, the diocese’s financial administrator, later testified a “recommended offering” can be collected for funerals and weddings but it’s not required. If money is collected, he said, it shouldn’t go to the priest.
“The money is by policy to be given to the parish,” said Savel.
Meehan also asked Savel about the diocese’s policy on bank accounts, which has been a big issue at trial.
Savel said the diocese must give permission for a pastor to open a church bank account and it must be at Bank of Montreal. If a branch isn’t nearby, National Bank is acceptable.
Court previously heard that Couture opened a church account at TD bank that only he could access. Savel said there is no record of Couture seeking or being granted permission to open the TD account.
“It was completely unknown to us until 2010,” he said.