The Windsor Star
Published on: November 27, 2015 | Last Updated: November 27, 2015 9:00 PM EST
A forensic accounting expert testified Friday that a former local priest stole as much as $234,000 from his own church.
The chartered accountant said Robert Couture opened and single-handedly controlled a bank account in the name of Ste. Anne’s Parish that wasn’t authorized by the London diocese. KPMG’s Karen Grogan said Couture deposited more than $168,000 into the account, most of which was then funnelled to his personal Visa and bank accounts.
“Mr. Couture confirmed there was not approval to open the account,” said Grogan, who interviewed Couture during a forensic audit ordered by the diocese.
Couture, the former pastor of Ste. Anne in Tecumseh, is charged with theft over $5,000. He is accused of stealing large sums of money from the church between 2002 and 2010.
“It was $170,000 to $234,000 appeared to be taken by Mr. Couture,” said Grogan.
She said the London diocese retained KPMG after growing concerned about “alleged financial irregularities” related to cash collection, fees collected for services, misuse of credit cards and a TD bank account.
She said that bank account was in Ste. Anne’s name, but the church had no control over it.
Grogan said that to open a parish bank account, the priest had to get permission from the diocese. The account also had to be at a Bank of Montreal or National Bank. Couture opened an account at TD Bank without the diocese’s permission, she said.
Grogan said $168,100 was deposited into the account. Of that, $89,200 came from cheques written out to Ste. Anne church for a range of things including charitable donations. About $18,300 was from cheques written out to Couture. It’s unknown where the remaining $60,600 came from, she said, because TD bank didn’t have the records.
All of the money that went into the TD account, said Grogan, was eventually taken out. She said $27,300 went to recipients including other priests, the church and a funeral home.
But Grogan said Couture took $148,800 of it. She said $107,000 went to his personal Visa and $27,000 flowed to his personal bank account. Grogan said smaller amounts paid some of Couture’s other expenses, including a dentist, Highway 407 express tolls and Time magazine.
When it came to the cheques made out to Ste. Anne, defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme suggested during cross-examination that people just wrote one for a particular wedding or funeral. Ducharme argued they asked Couture to cash the single cheque and divvy up the money to people who helped out.
Grogan responded that if the cheque was made out to the church, she assumed it was “intended entirely for Ste. Anne.”
Grogan said it appears Couture took large amounts of church money that came from weddings, funerals and baptisms. She said $33,248 from wedding fees or donations went into the TD account. Grogan added Couture took $25,520 that was donated to the church during baptisms between 2008 and 2009.
She said money was also missing from seven weddings. Ducharme pointed out that the church will do sacraments even if people can’t afford to donate money. Perhaps people just didn’t pay for those, he suggested.
“You taking weddings or funerals and making assumptions money is missing could be, you’ll agree, absolutely wrong,” he said.
“It could be,” said Grogan.
Along with those allegedly missing funds, Grogan said $4,200 went missing from the candle box during the time Couture was there. She said he had the only key.
Grogan said Ste. Anne employees also noticed that donation money the church took in from masses and other events started to decline after Couture’s arrival in 2002.
She said he also told employees that the cash from 4 p.m. Sunday mass was his and they should put in on his desk. Grogan said Couture took about $150 to $200 a week from that mass, for a total of between $39,300 and $52,400.
Ducharme asked if she considered that the donations might have dropped simply because of the massive economic downturn.
“I made the assumption that they were even, that the years were even,” said Grogan.
After Couture left the parish, Grogan said the amount of money deposited into Ste. Anne’s main account from that Sunday mass increased between $150 and $200 a week.
Grogan said Couture told her that he took a portion of the money from that collection and put it into the TD account. Couture told KPMG he did that because it was a regional mass, and he was giving money to the priest who celebrated it on any given Sunday.
Grogan said he also told church employees he gave $50 to the priests who celebrated that mass. “Maybe once a month,” she said, that was someone other than him.
Grogan said she has no documentation to support the claim he gave the money to other priests.