Charges against LeClair greeted with shock, dismay
The Ottawa Citizen
05 July 2012
By Andrew Duffy and Shelley Page
OTTAWA — The day after Ottawa police announced that Father Joseph LeClair had been charged with theft, fraud, money laundering and breach of trust, the Archbishop of Ottawa affirmed that if there are any victims in this case, it is the parishioners of Blessed Sacrament Church.
In a written statement released Wednesday, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast acknowledged that the news will cause hurt and disappointment in the Catholic community and beyond.
“Given the many people that Father LeClair has assisted as well as the several parishes which he has pastored during his 25 years of ministry, today is a sad day for our local church,” he said.
But while Prendergast asked Catholics to be “mindful” of LeClair, he also asked them to pray for the faithful of Blessed Sacrament Parish.
“They have been particularly burdened and pained by what has happened over the last year,” he said.
In April 2011, the Citizen published a story that highlighted lax financial controls at Blessed Sacrament while documenting LeClair’s gambling problem. It showed LeClair had incurred $490,000 in personal credit card bills during 2009 and 2010. That total included $137,000 in cash advances at Casino du Lac-Leamy.
In the past year, Blessed Sacrament’s finances have been reviewed by the auditing firm Deloitte and Touche, the Archdiocese of Ottawa and the Ottawa Police.
All three have concluded that church money was seriously mishandled during the past five years.
During those years, LeClair had the ability to write cheques to himself without providing receipts. Collection money was kept in LeClair’s unlocked rectory office and often was not counted for days.
Collection totals were not published in the bulletin and the church finance committee did not meet as a group to review the parish’s annual financial statement.
Ottawa police now allege that $160,000 in cash could not be accounted for during the same period of time, and that $20,000 worth of furniture and goods were wrongfully taken from the church when LeClair left Blessed Sacrament in May 2011.
The money laundering charge has not been explained by police, but it is known that LeClair gambled heavily at Casino du Lac-Leamy.
Events of the past year, Prendergast said in his statement, have prompted the diocese to introduce new rules for the handling of church money.
The financial protocol, which came into force this January, introduces checks and balances to ensure donations are properly collected, spent and accounted for by church officials.
The protocol also gives finance committees a more active role in parish administration.
Asked if the changes to financial controls could have forestalled trouble at Blessed Sacrament, the church’s former finance committee chair Herve Dejordy said he didn’t know.
“I don’t know because I don’t know how he (LeClair) supposedly went about it,” said Dejordy, who was the church’s principal bookkeeper during the five years in which police allege LeClair misappropriated more than $240,000 from the parish.
Most parishioners, he said, did not want to see police or judges involved in the case.
“I just feel very sorry for him,” said Dejordy, who was fired from his volunteer position last year.
But Prendergast’s comments about the new protocol only further upset parishioners like Linda Seguin-Lawrence.
“Fine, there are checks and balances now,” she said. “But they should have been there a long, long time ago, and maybe all this would have come to light long before (LeClair) got to the stage he did.
“I’m not trying to say he didn’t have a problem. Evidently he did. This should have been caught long before this. The Archdiocese should have been asking questions long before this.”
Seguin-Lawrence was also upset by the Archbishop’s comments that LeClair’s troubles are a reminder that priests are in positions of trust. “Well, where are priests supposed to turn?” she said. “They put their trust in the Archdiocese; they are their employer and mentor. Where was that mentorship in this case?
“I really feel they dropped the ball on that, big time.”
In the wake of Tuesday’s news, many of the parish faithful followed Seguin-Lawrence in searching for explanations and wondered how they might have helped their beloved pastor.
And some among them also said that the Archdiocese should have recognized long before the exposure of the church’s financial irregularities and its priest’s gambling addiction that the man known as Father Joe was exhausted and needed support.
“He’s human. None of us knew he was sick,” said Sharon House, who has known LeClair for 27 years. “I feel like society has failed him. He was there for everybody and no one was there for him.
“No one doubts now that there is evidence of what’s happened, but there are reasons that led to it.
“I’d say, ‘Father, what’s your outlet? Everybody needs an outlet.’ When this came to a head, I can’t say I was surprised. I didn’t know about the gambling addiction or anything like that, but I saw the pressure he was under. Everybody wanted Father to baptize their child, everybody wanted Father to marry them, to get advice from Father, to discuss life and death with Father,” House said.
Seguin-Lawrence, who considers LeClair “a very dear friend,” worked closely with him for many years when she served as baptism coordinator at Blessed Sacrament. She said he transformed a “dying parish” into one where masses were “chock-a-block” with people.
But it came at a cost, as Leclair, 55, worked ceaselessly.
“He is the only priest in the diocese doing five masses a weekend,” said Seguin-Lawrence, who said Leclair also performed the most baptisms and weddings, and conducted four or five marriage preparation courses a year, each attended by as many as 100 couples.
“The phone would ring day and night and there would be people in his office on the days that were supposed to be his day off. He never got rest. I always worried about him.”
LeClair has hired well-known criminal defence lawyer Matt Webber to represent him.
Webber, who called LeClair a “stellar servant of his community” has represented a host of high-profile clients in Ottawa over the past 12 years, including accused terrorist Mohamed Harkat. He says LeClair went to the police station voluntarily on Tuesday after learning that police intended to lay charges.
The investigation had been going on for so long — 11 months — that the charges did not come as a shock, Webber said.
LeClair remains on sabbatical from the Archdiocese of Ottawa. But despite the cloud now hanging over the priest, among those who have been close to him there remains a willingness — even a desire — to forgive him.
Parishoner Dawn Haime said Wednesday she is “still having a hard time” believing LeClair did anything wrong, but if he is found guilty, she is “choosing to look at it as a sickness.”
“It’s like a death, or a funeral, to learn what this poor man has gone through,” she said.
Seguin-Lawrence said she would “be the first one at the church door” if LeClair came back after his case has been tried. She believes he can be rehabilitated and that this experience will “define the rest of his ministry.
“I believe that he has been called by God,” she said, “and I trust that this will shape the second phase of his ministry.”
And reached at her home on Prince Edward Island, LeClair’s mother, Frances, said she stands by her son.
“As his parents, we love him. We will always love him regardless of what he has done,” Frances LeClair told the Citizen. “We just hope that God spares him and will help him, and we will do the same.”
With files from Meghan Hurley