03 June 2011
OTTAWA — Blessed Sacrament Parish had few measures in place to govern the management of church money at a time when its pastor, Father Joseph LeClair, had a gambling problem.
Interviews with members of the parish finance committee reveal that the church’s financial authority effectively rested in the hands of LeClair in 2009 and 2010.
“He was a one-man band,” said Herve Dejordy, longtime chair of Blessed Sacrament’s finance committee, and the church’s principal accountant.
The church finished both 2009 and 2010 in a deficit position, he confirmed.
LeClair could write cheques to himself from church accounts without a counter-signature. What’s more, he did not have to submit corresponding receipts in order to have a cheque approved.
A retired accountant, Dejordy said he didn’t challenge LeClair’s expense claims, or demand receipts, since he felt the diocese was responsible for that kind of financial oversight. “I wouldn’t approve anything: if he writes a cheque, I just record the cheque,” said Dejordy, a volunteer who has kept the church books for more than a decade.
LeClair also maintained a mass account, a separate church bank account, that was not scrutinized by Blessed Sacrament’s accountant, its finance committee or the diocese.
Dejordy said the mass account has always remained outside his purview; he has never asked how much money flowed through it. “I don’t get involved in that at all,” he said.
Mass accounts are a common feature of a church’s financial structure, according to Msgr. Kevin Beach, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. They’re used, he said, for the small amounts of money paid by parishioners who want a mass said for a specific cause, often to remember a loved one.
Diocesan officials could not say Thursday how much money moved through Blessed Sacrament’s mass account. But Beach said he expects that question will be addressed by an ongoing audit of the parish.
“I do not yet have the auditor’s report,” he said. “It’s my understanding with the auditors that they will be giving us an understanding as to how all the accounts were being used at Blessed Sacrament.”
That audit began three months ago after financial irregularities came to the attention of diocesan officials.
In the course of their work, auditors raised questions about some $250,000 worth of cheques issued to LeClair from church accounts. New financial accountability measures have since been established at the parish.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast has pledged to inform parishioners about the results of the audit.
Beach said the financial review has been complicated. “Obviously it has not been a simple case, otherwise I would have had some answers some time ago,” he said in an interview Thursday.
“We have also engaged outside auditors to examine the issue for us, so obviously the issue has not been simple.”
According to Beach, finance committees act in an advisory role to the pastor and it’s the pastor who makes decisions about the church. “In the end,” he said, “it is the pastor who is responsible to the diocese for the pastoral and administrative oversight or management of the parish.”
It’s considered a “best practice,” Beach noted, for a finance committee to play an oversight role, but it’s the diocese that is ultimately responsible for that oversight. “If there are questions about the financial management of a parish,” he said, “the diocese would be asking for a proper accounting.”
At Blessed Sacrament, the finance committee did not convene as a group at all last year. Members met informally with each other and sometimes with LeClair, Dejordy said.
Doug Casey, another member of the finance committee, told the Citizen that he was recruited because of his experience as a builder. Casey is president of Charlesfort Developments. “When there were issues related to the building, I was the go-to person,” he said.
Casey is listed on the church’s 2009 Canada Revenue Agency financial return as one of four directors at Blessed Sacrament, along with Dejordy, James Ovens and Paul McCartney.
But Casey said he was not asked to review financial statements sent to the diocese or to the federal government in 2009. He said he had no dealings with the day-to-day finances of the church.
Ovens and McCarney did not return phone calls from the Citizen.
Blessed Sacrament’s handling of cash deposited in collection baskets was also less-than-rigorous. Collection money, kept in bags in the rectory, was often not counted until Monday or Tuesday. It was usually not deposited until mid-week.
That lax financial system contrasts sharply with Ottawa’s St. George Parish, which recently published a description of its accountability measures. Among the key procedures in place since 2006:
ushers place collection money from each mass into an envelope that is sealed, signed, then locked in the rectory’s safety deposit box
after Sunday masses, two volunteers count the money, record totals, and place it in the bank’s night depository
all cheques issued from parish accounts need two signatures and must be supported by receipts
all bank accounts are reviewed monthly by the parish financial officer and regular updates are reported to the finance committee, which meets once a month
weekly collection totals are published in the bulletin, and the finance committee reports to parishioners at least once a year
At Blessed Sacrament, weekly collection totals were not published, nor was an annual financial report made to parishioners, Dejordy said. Instead, parishioners were pointed to the Canada Revenue Agency website where Blessed Sacrament’s annual financial returns are published. (Like all charities, Blessed Sacrament must file a federal information return.)
Parishioners who visit that site, however, would likely leave confused as to the state of church finances.
According to its 2009 information return – the 2010 version is not yet available – Blessed Sacrament brought in $577,189 in revenue and spent $297,436.
It would appear that the church was in the black by more than $279,000. But the return reports no expenditures on Line 5000: total expenditures on charitable programs.
That spending category normally represents the largest single expenditure for Blessed Sacrament and was never less than $436,000 in the previous six years.
Adding that kind of expense would dramatically alter the church’s 2009 financial picture.
Dejordy told the Citizen he doesn’t know why the return lists nothing for charitable spending. He said he included the expenditure, but that the CRA failed to publish it.
The CRA refused to comment on the issue, or any related to Blessed Sacrament’s returns, citing privacy legislation that precludes its officials from discussing the affairs of a particular organization.
Dejordy said the church finished both 2009 and 2010 in a deficit position. It was also in arrears on taxes owed to the diocese at the end of last year.
Asked to categorize the current financial state of the church, Dejordy said: “Well, we’re tight in cash, but we’re not in an alarming cash deficit … At the end of March, there was a cash balance and our bills, with the exception of the tax from the diocese, were paid.”
LeClair left Blessed Sacrament on May 22 and went on a previously arranged pilgrimage to Ireland. He’s expected to soon enter a specialized addictions treatment program to deal with his gambling problem.
Earlier this month, a special collection was taken for LeClair at the Glebe church during weekend services.
“There is a longtime tradition in our church that departing pastors are presented with a ‘purse’ on their departure,” read a message posted by the parish council, which said it would be a fitting manner to thank LeClair.
The developments followed a Citizen story that revealed LeClair received more than $137,000 in cash advances on his credit card at Casino du Lac-Leamy in 2009 and 2010.
During those years, he racked up personal credit card bills of more than $490,000, a lot of it through the use of cash advances. He repaid Visa more than $424,000 during those years.
As a church pastor, LeClair earned a net salary of $24,400. He also received money for marriage counselling and for officiating at weddings, funerals and baptisms.
LeClair has repeatedly insisted that he did not use church funds to gamble, and relied on his winnings and personal funds.
LeClair is credited with restoring vibrancy to Blessed Sacrament, a church that had seen its attendance and revenues dwindle before his arrival in 1997.
He is an immensely popular priest, renowned for his storytelling and for his tireless work on behalf of parishioners.