The Catholic Register
11 December 2015
By Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
WINDSOR, ONT. – A jury found a former priest of St. Anne parish here guilty of stealing more than $170,000 from the church Dec. 10.
Fr. Robert Couture was pastor of the church in suburban Tecumseh between 2002 and 2010. He is currently on administrative leave from the Diocese of London and lives in the Windsor area. He is free under a promise to appear in court Feb. 5 when a sentencing date will be set. He could be sentenced to as long as 10 years in jail.
Couture, 53, was charged in 2013 with one count of theft over $5,000 after a two-year investigation, including a forensic audit by KPMG ordered by the diocese after financial irregularities were noticed. He was alleged to have stolen between $170,000 and $234,000 from the parish — money that he siphoned into a private account.
During the almost three-week trial in Ontario Provincial Court the jury heard that Couture, a native of Pain Court near Chatham, Ont., had taken money from a variety of sources including the collection plates and candle boxes, and also set up a “de facto fee system” for weddings, baptisms and funerals in which he pocketed most of the money for himself, according to assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan.
Meehan accused Couture of taking blatant advantage of his position as church leader.
“He was the pastor, what he said went,” the prosecutor said, describing Couture’s behaviour as an “abuse of the power he held.”
The priest was charged after the Diocese of London ordered a forensic audit after a regular diocese audit — part of a policy to conduct audits at times of pastor changes or every five years — raised numerous questions.
“There were a number of irregularities,” diocese spokeswoman Emma Moynihan said. “As a result the Diocese of London took this information to the police.”
During the trial the court heard that Couture opened a private account at the TD Bank and funnelled large sums of money into it. The diocese mandates that parishes have one account and that be through either the Bank of Montreal or National Bank. St. Anne’s has a National Bank account. It is against diocese policy to open another account, even in the church’s name, without its permission, which Couture did not seek.
“I believe it was my authority as pastor,” he said when asked why he opened the account.
During his tenure at St. Anne, Couture channelled a variety of funds into the TD account, some of which he paid out to other priests for services, to altar servers or even as charitable contributions. But the majority he kept for himself.
He also set up a system of fees for various ceremonies. For example, there would be a $250 charge for a funeral, where $100 would go to the church, $100 to the priest, $25 for the wake service person and $25 towards a dinner for altar servers. Similar fees were charged for weddings and baptisms.
But Couture maintained these weren’t mandatory. Instead, he told parishioners, “There is only one thing that I ask. I ask that you be just.”
Bishop Ronald Fabbro testified that Couture should not have been charging a fee for services.
“He shouldn’t have been charging a fee for himself,” the bishop said, noting, “that would be against diocesan policy.” David Savel, the diocese’s financial administrator, said churches can suggest a “recommended offering” for funerals and weddings but it isn’t required and the money is not to go to the priest.
Meanwhile Couture’s bank account continued to grow. His gross income was as much as $95,000 a year despite his priest’s salary of $23,000 plus room and board worth $12,000. He also made $10,000 as a school board trustee and $3,000 a year as a part-time teacher. The remainder of the money came from the questionable sources.
Couture said he eventually saved as much as $350,000 and bragged that he was on track for early retirement.
Meanwhile, the court heard that Couture lived a rather opulent lifestyle, including fine dining, Broadway plays and flights to Florida and Europe.
Following the verdict defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme said his client was “stunned and depressed” and it was too early to say if he will appeal. Ducharme disagreed with the high-flying image painted of the priest.
“He certainly didn’t live the life of a jetsetter or have a bunch of expensive clothing,” the lawyer said.
The diocese’s Moynihan said Couture had long ago had his priest faculties removed and a decision to remove his title as a priest would have to be made by the Pope.
As for St. Anne parishioners, Moynihan said they were “shocked and disappointed when this all came to light and it was of course very disappointing to the diocese that this measure of distrust occurred.”
(Sang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)
Tecumseh Priest Unrepentant
The Windsor Star
11 December 2015
By Ian Shalapata
(WINDSOR, ON) – The lawyer for a priest says that Robert Couture continues to maintain his innocence after being found guilty, in Superior Court, of stealing from his own church. Couture’s lawyer, Patrick Ducharme, says the verdict is disappointing.
The former pastor of Tecumseh’s Ste Anne Parish was the subject of a two-year probe by the OPP. Police originally thought Couture stole more than $180,000, but court heard that the figure could be as high as $234,000.
Parish officials called in accounting firm KPMG to conduct a forensic audit of the church’s books.
A spokesman for the London Diocese says that Couture will not be defrocked as that would be a decision the Pope would have to make. Defrocking is usually reserved for priests involved in sex abuse cases.
Assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan said he would likely ask for jail time for Couture. The maximum allowed for Theft Over $5,000 is ten years. Ducharme hasn’t discussed an appeal, yet, wit Couture.
Justice Scott Campbell will sentence Couture on February 5, 2016.
Former Tecumseh pastor found guilty of stealing from his church
Published on: December 10, 2015 | Last Updated: December 11, 2015 11:07 AM EST
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 Catholic Diocese of London won’t move to have the former pastor of Tecumseh’s Ste. 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.
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.”