Rev. Robert Couture just wanted a thank-you card.
The former pastor of Ste. Anne Parish took the witness stand Tuesday to answer the charge that he stole from his church. Among the things he’s accused of doing is creating a mandatory fee for things like funerals and weddings, then pocketing the money.
“I always said you owe me nothing but you’re more than welcome if you want to show your gratitude,” Couture told the jury. “The most important thing to me is that I get a thank-you card. What you put in the card is up to you.”
Couture, 53, is charged with theft over $5,000. He is accused of stealing anywhere from $170,000 to $234,000 during his tenure at Ste. Anne between 2002 and 2010.
After court spent more than a week hearing from prosecution witnesses, the defence case began Tuesday when Couture took the stand. One of the issues he addressed was an unauthorized TD bank account he opened in the church’s name.
When he was at St. Patrick’s church in London, Couture said he had a similar account for more than seven years. He said it was a distribution account to deal with “challenges.” The challenge, he said, was that people would give him one cheque for several people involved in an event and expect him to distribute the money.
“I found that very uncomfortable and cumbersome,” he said.
Couture said in some cases he would pay altar servers out of his pocket on the spot, then take the cheque to the bank. When he distributed the money, Couture said some “definitely went to the church.”
He said he didn’t ask the diocese for permission to open the account, something Catholic officials previously testified was a requirement. Couture said he didn’t do that because he thought it was his job to run the parish as intelligently and effectively as he could.
“I opened it with a clear conscience that what I was doing was good.”
At Ste. Anne, he said he set up a similar unauthorized account. Couture said it was “definitely not” a secret because he told the church secretary and bookkeeper about it.
The account “simplified” things, he said, allowing families or a funeral home to write one cheque.
“It also created more privacy for helping the poor,” said Couture.
He said that when people donated to help the needy, the TD account allowed him to be discreet about who was giving the money and who was receiving it. People donating money often wanted to remain anonymous, he said, and keeping that cash flow out of the main account avoided embarrassment for those who needed the help.
Couture also denied instituting a mandatory $250 fee for funerals, but said he suggested a more “standardized” method. He said “simplifying honorariums” made it easier for families to discuss how much they should give the priest. Couture said the conclusion was that people could write one cheque and he would divide it four ways. The breakdown was $100 for the church, $100 for the priest, $25 for the wake service person and $25 to go into a dinner fund for altar servers.
Similarly with baptisms and weddings, Couture said he never told anyone they must pay a fee.
“There is only one thing that I ask,” he said. “I ask that you be just.”
Couture’s testimony continues Wednesday.