Priest accused of stealing told bishop he was playing ‘hardball’ with unauthorized fees

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The Windsor Star

Published on: November 30, 2015 | Last Updated: November 30, 2015 9:29 PM EST

Trevor Wilhelm, Windsor Star

Robert Couture walks towards Superior Court in Windsor on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.

Robert Couture walks towards Superior Court in Windsor on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. Tyler Brownbridge / Windsor Star

The bishop of the London diocese testified Monday that a priest charged with stealing claimed he was charging unauthorized wedding fees to play “hardball” with people wanting to use the church.

Bishop Ronald Fabbro took the witness stand as week two of the trial against Robert Couture began.

“He should not be including a fee for himself,” said Fabbro.

“This idea of playing hardball I thought was not a good pastoral approach.”

Robert Couture, the former pastor of Ste. Anne Parish in Tecumseh, is charged with theft over $5,000. A forensic accountant told court last week Couture stole between $170,000 and $234,000 from 2002 to 2010.

Fabbro said Monday he received a complaint in 2004 from the parents of a couple who got married at Ste. Anne. He said the complaint from the family, referred to in court as the Majors, was about fees that Couture required.

The bishop said the complaint was that Couture charged $100 for the church plus $100 for himself and $50 for the altar servers.

“He shouldn’t have been charging particularly a fee for himself,” Fabbro told assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan. “That would be against diocesan policy.”

Fabbro wrote a letter to Couture about the complaint. The bishop said Couture responded that he needed to “play hardball,” because people were taking advantage of the church.

Fabbro said he told Couture that was against the diocese policy, which must be followed.

According to Fabbro, Couture told him he understood the policy.

The bishop received another complaint in 2005 from a man named Charles Dube about a similar issue. Dube was surprised the church was charging such a “high fee for a wedding.”

Again, Fabbro wanted answers from Couture. The priest responded with a letter stating that two brides from St. Jerome church, who were mostly “inactive,” wanted to get married at Ste. Anne because it was “prettier.”

Fabbro said Couture wrote that he informed the person complaining that the church was charging “double the going rate” for people outside of Ste. Anne who had “flimsy” reasons for using the church.

“They were users of the facility and myself,” Fabbro recited from Couture’s letter.

As for diocese policy, Couture wrote “I’m well aware of what it is.”

“When you play hardball with some people they get this idea that they can shame and humiliate you by going over your head to your boss,” Couture’s letter stated.

Under cross-examination from defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme, Fabbro said Couture did hundreds of weddings and those were the only two complaints he received.

Fabbro also acknowledged that the Majors were quite happy with the way Couture handled the actual ceremony.

“They were happy with the service, it was just this bitter thing about the fee,” said Fabbro.

David Savel, the diocese’s financial administrator, later testified a “recommended offering” can be collected for funerals and weddings but it’s not required. If money is collected, he said, it shouldn’t go to the priest.

“The money is by policy to be given to the parish,” said Savel.

Meehan also asked Savel about the diocese’s policy on bank accounts, which has been a big issue at trial.

Savel said the diocese must give permission for a pastor to open a church bank account and it must be at Bank of Montreal. If a branch isn’t nearby, National Bank is acceptable.

Court previously heard that Couture opened a church account at TD bank that only he could access. Savel said there is no record of Couture seeking or being granted permission to open the TD account.

“It was completely unknown to us until 2010,” he said.

twilhelm@windsorstar.com

twitter.com/winstarwilhelm

11 Responses to Priest accused of stealing told bishop he was playing ‘hardball’ with unauthorized fees

  1. Sylvia says:

    What a lot of bunk! Father Couture told Bishop Fabbro couples that he, Couture, was playing hardball with some couples about to be married at his church by demanding extra monies for conducting weddings? If Father Couture really wanted to ‘play hardball’ with the couples he would more likely have told them he wasn’t going to allow then to marry at St. Anne’s. He wanted the money.

    As for the Bishop only receiving two such complaints, most people do not have a clue what costs may or may not be associated with a church wedding . If “Father” tells them it will cost them $200, or $300 to get married in his church, most will take him at his word How would they know that they are not actually required to pay a penny, and that the Sacraments are never to be denied anyone for financial reasons?

    I have heard via the grapevine that Father Couture demanded – and received – amounts significantly greater than $100. I wonder how many out there are finding out only now that they were conned?

    I wonder if Bishop Fabbro insisted that Couture reimburse those two couples? I don’t see any indication that he did. If he failed to do so, he should have, while at the same time ordering Couture to explain to each couple that he was lying when he told them they had to pay him $100.

    Yes, I suppose perhaps to get the job done I would go with allowing him to tell the couple that he had erred rather than lied in asking for that money, but I do think it is important that the bishop ensure that his priest set the record straight regarding costs associated with church weddings. But, it is equally true that Father Couture outright lied to those people. (According to the article, he told Bishop Fabbro that he, Couture, was well aware of diocesan policy regarding weddings. And, as I read it, the manner in which he responded tot eh bishop can only be described as arrogant and saucy: “I’m well aware of what [diocesan policy] it is.” )

  2. J says:

    When my oldest daughter was married we gave the parish 200 dollars, the priest 200 dollars and the server 50. This is in London diocese and it was explained to us that these were recommended donations and not manditory. I pointed out to my daughter that she was spending 500 dollars on a live musician, thousands on decorations and flowers and stupid amounts for everything else!

    It is worth noting Bishop Fabro’s cathedral had a policy of detailing this practice in writing here in London. We thought about going there as we are on the border. The amounts were handed out to couples with envelopes marked for the priest, the church and the servers. That has been discontinued over the last few years.

    Back to my experience…. sorry. The priest did an awesome job, the church was beautiful and the most important part of the day was the cheapest. By the way our priest also led the rehersal and even prepared our inexperienced readers. He was fun and professional and challenging about the importance of a life long committed relationship in the sacrament of marriage. To be honest the rest of the day paled in comparison. Our whole wedding culture drives me crazy.

    This is exactly what I thought this was all about. However the practice of honorarium system in weddings and funerals is established in our society.

    I was recently asked to lead a memorial service for a childhood friend who was not a church goer. The family had the funeral home give me 200 dollars because that is the custom and I am not a clergy member. Fr. Couture may well have been arrogant and saucy but he should be diciplined for this not charged with a crime.

    I am sure that there will be an accounting given in the defence but I am already convinced that this is mostly about honorariums and poor judgement all around. If every priest who kept his honorariums and lived a middle-class lifestyle was put in jail there would be many there.

    Do the math. If this guy did over 500 weddings and as many funerals, honorariums would total 137,000 over 8 years. When I first read this case I wondered if this was where this was going. I see your point Sylvia and maybe this whole thing is outdated and needs to go but it seems to me that there is a lot of grey here.

  3. Sylvia says:

    I think J the issue is not specifically that Father Couture opened a separate and personal bank account . True, while that is against diocesan policy, it probably is not a crime. Where the problem comes in is the source and utilization of the funds which were deposited int that account. That I think that, at least in part, is where the criminal dimension comes in and why charges were laid.

    According to Trevor Wilhelm’s article of 27 November, Karen Grogan from KPMG said ‘$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.’ According to Wilhelm she also testified that ‘$4,200 went missing from the candle box during the time Couture was there’ and ‘Couture took about $150 to $200 a week from [the 4 pm Sunday Mass], for a total of between $39,300 and $52,400’

    Of the monies in that TD account, $107,000 went to his personal Visa and $27,000 to his personal bank account

    If indeed this is fact, it was neither Father Couture’s money to take or spend on himself.

  4. Brad Toulouse says:

    I would like to know why Bishop Fabro wasn’t more forceful, demanding he put a stop to these practices if he knew on two occasions they took place!!!

  5. Patricia says:

    We were married twenty-five years ago in London, Ontario. We donated to the parish on Sunday, there were envelopes for that.

    For the wedding, if I remember correctly, we paid $100 to the altar servers, $50 to the organist and $100 to Fr. Couture. Not to the parish, to Fr. Couture. The money was given as personal gratuities to all.

  6. C says:

    My husband and I were married at Ste Anne’s at the end of 2009, right before this all went down. Yes, the ceremony was beautiful – everyone was emotionally touched. But we were given a “price list” for fees, making it seem as though the fees were not optional. We were also kind of bullied into inviting him to our reception. I know this is typically a custom for people who are close with their pastor. We were bot those people. We attend mass every week, but we mostly keep to ourselves – we’re quiet people. He asked point blank in our meeting before the wedding if we had sent him an invitation, and gave attitude when we hadn’t. And then he actually came to the reception, and we felt as if we had to invite him to the rehearsal dinner, which he showed up to as well. But as if he attended our reception – could he not bully anyone else into attending their reception? On top of paying the $50 per altar server (claimed we would have 2 and there was only one), and the $100 fee “to the church” (he wasn’t just gouging people who didn’t attend the church, but everyone), we also had to pay for his plate on a lower end budget. There was always something that rubbed me the wrong way about him. He always seemed like a bully, and even was a bit threatening in our meeting, that he wouldn’t marry us if he didn’t like our answers. He doesn’t seem remorseful in the least, and that is the worst of all.

  7. J says:

    Sylvia I think you make a very good point about Karen Grogan’s testimony. I only brought up the amount of potential honorariums as there has been no accounting of these funds and others at Fr. Couture’s disposal. I noticed that he also had a paid position with the French School Board.

    I am very interested in any potential accounting that will come from the defense side. There seems to be a lot of assumptions in the KPMG report even according to Karen Grogan. It will be interesting to see if there is further information provided. That 60,000 is of particular interest to me.

    Yesterday it was revealed in court that the diocese, the bishop and the insurance company made a deal to report the priest to the police as a condition for a large payout of money in an insurance claim. I hope that all due diligence was done in the accounting and internal investigation and that a six figure check didn’t cause a rush in the process?

    I am amazed at the swiftness of action when $$$$$$$ is involved. I join with others here in wishing all treatment of potential crimes among the clergy were so……decisive!!!!

  8. J says:

    As I expected it was just confirmed to me by people at the trial that there really is a full accounting of the famous td account and it has been revealed in court but not discussed in the media. There are regular deposits in the account everytime the visa payments are made. The deposits cover whatever portion of the visa is personal to Fr. Couture. The money is personal. The crown has made it clear that Fr. Robert had the resources to pay the money. Remember the money going in which they could not identify? There is no evidence of missing cash.

    It has further been made obvious that by jumping on a 167,000 dollar check the Bishop and his officials stopped proper research into the accounting of the monies in question. The normal process is to examine the inner account information and reconcile any discrepancy.

    This process stopped and Karen Grogen admitted that she was not able to even open answers to accounting questions she had submitted to Fr. Couture who she admitted was trying to cooperate. This was because the diocese had jumped on the cash and gone to the police before the audit was finished. There was also no ability to explore the presented evidence that in fact there was no missing money at all. That is why there are these wildly broad approximations in the KPMG report.

    In fact the judge told both counsels yesterday that he was having difficulty deciding how to instruct the jury since all the crown talks about is ‘corporate policy’ being broken when there is supposed to be a criminal trial going on! This is a mess! This was an internal matter in which a priest should have been diciplined for breaking diocesan policy (corporate policy).

    I now am convinced that this is a miscarriage of justice. Fr. Couture explained very well in court today about the candle money and his approach to dispersing charity. Maybe we will never know for sure all aspects of this situation but I am of the opinion that this has been poorly handled to say the least. Maybe a man’s reputation has been ruined for no good reason not to mention the cost of a poorly conceived trial which we tax payers are paying for. We are almost at the end and maybe I will be surprised but I doubt it.

    By the way……. if this is in fact the truth of the matter and there is no missing money will the Bishop and his crowd be returning the 167,000?

  9. J says:

    As many will have seen the accountant for the defense testified yesterday. She was unequivocal in her condemnation of the KPMG report and declared that despite sloppy accounting there was no stealing here and no crime. I have suspected this for some time.

    I am a man who is responsible for many others. In my business I have had to make many difficult decisions that have affected lives. A quick example recently was the following. I hired a woman who was smart but ‘rough around the edges’. I worked with her closely to try to bring out the best in her. I had to be tough at times. My staff did not like her. Many clients also. Finally some staff reported to me that they believed she had stolen from the business. There was no real proof. I could have called the Constable, who could have dragged her before the Magistrate, and hoped that the Hangman would get her! On the other hand I could have the moral courage to be the leader and acknowledge that I had a problem with an employee who did not fit. I chose the later. My question is why did the Bishop not do the same? That is his job. With much power comes much responsibility.

    Many people here have said the did not like Fr. Couture, they were uncomfortable with him and as Sylvia said he was saucy (love that word). OK fair enough but hopefully we all agree that if this accountant is correct and I believe she is, then this has gone way to far. This story has sad written all over it. Enough from me. I don’t mean to preach!

    I am a regular visitor to Sylvia’s site but I usually have little to say until this. My normal routine is to check in with Sylvia and her friends, read the stories of horror revealed here, weep for the victims, and do the only thing I can…pray for them. I will now most likely return to this pattern. Keep up the good work Sylvia and all! God Bless you!

  10. Jo Anne De Wilde says:

    My heart breaks for this man and his family. He has devoted his life to his calling and his faith. Maybe he is not a lawyer, accountant or a whipping boy but I found him
    to be a dedicated priest. I pray he will find strength to go through this “valley of the
    shadow”. This silliness about charges for weddings is ridiculous. Fifty-three years
    ago we where told what we had to pay for our wedding services. We explained that
    we could not afford the amount they were asking and the priest in St.Thomas said
    pay what you can….we paid half the asking price. No problem.
    We need good caring priest like Fr.Couture. I pray for him and his family.
    Please God give them the strength to weather this most public storm…in
    Jesus name Amen

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