The Ottawa Citizen
July 3, 2012 11:19 PM
By Meghan Hurley and Andrew Duffy
Rev. Joseph LeClair is being charged with one count each of fraud over $5,000, theft over $5,000, criminal breach of trust and money laundering under the criminal code.
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington , The Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — An 11-month police investigation into financial irregularities at Blessed Sacrament Church has resulted in fraud, theft, money laundering and breach of trust charges against the parish’s former pastor, Rev. Joseph LeClair.
The Ottawa Police fraud investigation covered a period of five years — from January 2006 to May 2011 — and found that more than $240,000 was allegedly misappropriated by LeClair through cheques issued by the priest on church accounts.
Another $160,000 of parish funds were unaccounted for, the police said, while approximately $20,000 in furniture and household items belonging to the parish were allegedly taken from the rectory when the priest left to begin addictions treatment.
Fraud investigators were able to recover some of the items that belonged to the church.
After his arrest Tuesday, LeClair, 55, was released on a promise to appear notice. He is scheduled to appear in court July 25 when he will face four charges: fraud over $5,000, theft over $5,000, criminal breach of trust, and laundering the proceeds of crime.
Neither LeClair nor his lawyer, Ian Stauffer, could be reached for comment Tuesday night.
An immensely popular and dynamic priest, LeClair has always denied taking money from church coffers.
The Citizen first raised serious questions about financial irregularities at Blessed Sacrament in a story published in April 2011. It revealed LeClair had a casino gambling problem and had incurred $490,000 in personal credit card bills during the years 2009 and 2010. More than $137,000 of those credit card charges were the result of advances taken at Casino du Lac-Leamy. The same story revealed that Blessed Sacrament had few controls on the way in which church money was handled.
Four months after the Citizen published its story, the Archdiocese of Ottawa filed a police complaint based on an audit of Blessed Sacrament’s books conducted by the firm, Deloitte and Touche.
As the Citizen story revealed, during the years in question, LeClair had the ability to write a cheque to himself without receipts; Sunday collections were kept in an unlocked rectory office and often not counted for days; and the church’s finance committee did not meet to review financial statements.
As the former chair of the church’s finance committee, Herve Dejordy, told the newspaper: “He (LeClair) was a one-man band.”
In announcing the charges late Tuesday, Ottawa police warned charitable organizations, such as hockey associations and religious groups, that they need to have clear, up-to-date financial rules in place.
“Have proper checks and balances and an arm’s-length regular review process,” recommended Sgt. Richard Dugal of the Ottawa Police Organized Fraud Section.
“Many such organizations rely on volunteers and well-meaning individuals to assist, but without proper fiscal management practices, it leaves the organizations vulnerable to abuse.”
In January, in response to the scandal at Blessed Sacrament, the Archdiocese of Ottawa introduced a strict financial protocol to govern the handling of parish monies. The protocol introduced a raft of checks and balances to ensure donations are properly collected, spent and accounted for by church officials.
News that LeClair will face criminal charges is sure to further roil emotions at the Glebe parish.
Last fall, hundreds of parishioners gathered at Blessed Sacrament to urge the Archbishop not to hand the case to police. They argued that LeClair had been let down by the church hierarchy and should be forgiven by the Catholic community that he served so faithfully.
Before the controversy, LeClair was among the best known priests in the city. He officiated at the weddings of former mayor Larry O’Brien and Senators defenceman Chris Phillips. He hosted a radio show and has been the subject of flattering features in the Citizen and on CBC.
Born and raised in a fishing village on Prince Edward Island, LeClair grew up in a family of nine children. He has talked publicly about the pain of his father’s alcoholism. He also discussed his own battle with depression.
“I think why I became so sensitive to mental health is myself having come very close to burnout,” he said in 2009 upon receiving an award for destigmatizing mental illness “I know what a panic attack is, what anxiety can do to your life. I thought that was the Lord’s way of saying I need to make that my mission in life as I fully appreciate what people suffer when they go through this kind of thing.”
LeClair worked as an elementary school teacher and social services worker before being ordained a priest 25 years ago.
He served in several Ottawa churches before being assigned 14 years ago to the then-struggling parish of Blessed Sacrament.
The majestic church, built in 1931, had fallen on hard times. Its attendance was dwindling. “It was sort of the old cliché of firing a cannon through a room and not hitting anyone,” LeClair told the Citizen in a 2004 profile.
But Father Joe authored a remarkable rebirth at Blessed Sacrament. He reached out to neighbourhoods beyond the Glebe and recruited Catholic students from Carleton University. He made music a central part of his services.
The Citizen, however, decided to investigate the parish after being presented with evidence of financial irregularities being ignored at the church.
Leclair had been aware of the newspaper’s investigation for three months, and called the Citizen several times to express his concern and to deny any wrongdoing.
“I’m a good person in Ottawa. I do good work,” he said on Jan. 25th of last year. “The charities that I give to are numerous to no end. My books are open to absolutely anyone. I have accountants and I am accountable and I would never, never take money from my church.”
LeClair admitted last April he had a gambling problem after the Citizen published its story that revealed the extent of his addiction and the ease with which he could access church funds.
He resigned as pastor in late May of last year and went to a specialized addictions treatment program in Aurora. He has been on sabbatical ever since.
A former Ottawa priest is in hot water following a multi-year police investigation.
Joseph LeClair, 55, was charged with one count each of fraud of $5,000 and theft over $5,000.
A complaint was filed by the Ottawa Archdiocese in August in relation to concerns about the financial administration at Blessed Sacrament Parish.
Police investigations uncovered more than $240,000 in the form of cheques from the parish were misappropriated. Further, more than $160,000 in cash was missing.
The investigation covered a review period from Jan. 2006 to May 2011.
Police investigations also found about $20,000 in furniture and household items belonging to the parish were taken when LeClair left.
Police say fraud investigators recovered a portion of those items in a home outside of Ontario.
The Sun reported that in April 2011 LeClair admitted to his congregation he was struggling with depression and had lost control of a gambling problem.
LeClair said his addiction was supported with his own money — not church funds.
In March, the Sun learned the church had hired accountants to keep a watchful eye over funds.
LeClair is scheduled to appear in court July 25.