The Windsor Star
Published on: December 2, 2015 | Last Updated: December 2, 2015 8:26 PM EST
Trevor Wilhelm, Windsor Star
At age 43 — with hundreds of thousands in retirement savings — Rev. Robert Couture was already talking about being able to retire comfortably.
“I was moving in that direction,” Couture, 53, testified Wednesday in his criminal trial.
The former pastor of Tecumseh’s Ste. Anne Parish spent Day 8 of his trial on the witness stand Wednesday taking questions from his lawyer and the prosecutor.
Couture is charged with theft over $5,000. He is accused of stealing between $170,000 and $234,000 from 2002 to 2010.
Couture told defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme that, despite discussion about meagre priest wages at trial, his total gross income was $85,000 to $95,000 a year. He said his gross priest salary was about $23,000 a year, plus room and board worth about $12,000.
He said he was also paid $10,000 annually during his 19-year stint as a school board trustee and made about $3,000 a year as a part-time teacher.
The rest of that $85,000 to $95,000 income came from doing weddings, funerals, baptisms and other events.
Couture said the church held an average of 15 masses a week, two or three weddings during the eight-month season, and about 200 baptisms a year. He did most of those.
When assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan asked Couture if he’d be willing to provide an income tax return to prove his income, the reply was “no.” Couture said he wouldn’t be willing because that is “private.”
During cross-examination, Couture said he had about $350,000 saved up for retirement. He also said he lost an additional $200,000 in investments.
Meehan pointed out that in a two-year period, Couture put more than $89,000 into investments. That included separate deposits of $15,200, $26,000 and $47,500.
Couture said $27,500 out of the $47,500 deposit came from a line of credit. He said he was able to save up that much because he had few expenses and drove used cars. One of those used cars was a Cadillac, which he paid more than $26,000 in cash for.
Couture also faced questions about his “lifestyle,” including what the prosecution said was more than $65,000 in travel expenses he put on his personal Visa card. The travel expenses noted Wednesday included $20,000 for airfare, $5,000 for hotels and $8,900 for other travel packages.
Couture said he never calculated the totals.
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” he told Meehan.
Couture made thousands of dollars on that personal Visa by depositing money into a TD bank account he opened in the church’s name, then forwarding it to the credit card.
He was questioned at length Wednesday about that TD account, which was not authorized by the London diocese. Couture said there were “very strict guidelines” for use of the church’s main account.
He said the TD account allowed him more freedom to accept anonymous donations, quietly give to the needy and pay priests for celebrating masses. Couture acknowledged it wasn’t authorized.
“I opened an account because I thought it was in the best interest of the community,” he said.
When Meehan asked what authority Couture had to open the account, he replied, “I believe it was my authority as pastor.
“I was given pastoral responsibility of the parish and that decision I made as the pastor,” Couture said.