Egan: Ottawa’s Father Joe gets his second chance — and that’s a good thing

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Ottawa Citizen

Published on: February 26, 2015

Last Updated: February 26, 2015 9:51 PM EST

Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen

Father Joe Leclair.

Father Jow LeClair                                     Pat McGrath/Ottawa Citizen

Father Joe LeClair may always be known as the priest who stole, gambled and went to jail. Gossip and Google spread their own gospel.

So, given the news reported in Thursday’s Citizen, is it a good thing he is back in active ministry?

Yes, actually. The Roman Catholic church has a long history of dealing with internal sins by drawing the blinds and closeting the shame. Secrecy, often, has been its worst offence. Just ask a victim, of which there are too many.

Not this time — it’s all burst open: the boozing, the gambling, the money shell games, the denials, the eventual admission. Given his public profile — priest to the stars — the humiliation must have been profound.

One has to wonder whether this represents a new way for the church to deal with misbehaving priests: that is, invite criminal authorities to do their work, endure a public trial, suffer the outcome, then attempt to rehabilitate the cleric and find a suitable home. In other words, let him do the time, then wear the crime.

There was a backdoor way, early on, for the Archdiocese of Ottawa to deal with this internally, as there is evidence it knew something fishy was going on early in 2011. His superiors could have shuffled him aside, sent him for counselling, claimed an accounting mixup at Blessed Sacrament Church and kept the whole story out of the papers.

It chose not to. After his prison sentence, too, it could have tried to defrock him or put him on some kind of unworthy or semi-retired list. Instead, he’s back working in a quartet of churches in the Moncton area as an assistant.

It isn’t as though the church is shy about ripping collars away. The Associated Press reported in 2014 that Pope Benedict defrocked nearly 400 priests over a two-year period, all for sexual offences against minors, a near doubling from the previous period.

This is what makes LeClair different. A quick search of news databases did not turn up another Catholic priest still practising in Canada who has a criminal record for non-sexual offences. So he will be that different kind of faith leader — one who has sinned far greater than most of his parishioners.

Think of it. Lots of addiction counsellors are former addicts. Surely LeClair can use his lived experience — as a fraudster, boozer and gambler — to better understand and counsel parishioners with real-life problems.

People, too, have a soft spot for a comeback story. We shall see if LeClair, 57, is able to rebuild a decent measure of trust, earn forgiveness, make good on a clean slate.

The timing, however, does deserve scrutiny. It has not been a terribly long time since the padre stepped through the prison gates. LeClair was released on Nov. 9 and began working in Moncton in January, meaning there was less than three months in purgatory.

Is he really ready? We do know he underwent counselling at some point since the Citizen broke the story in April 2011.

He is a complicated individual. Charming and charismatic enough to fill empty pews on Sunday, court heard that he suffered from chronic anxiety, alcohol abuse and eventually became a “pathological gambler.”

It might be argued that any other community leader of his stature — once a convicted criminal — would be summarily fired or, at least, never be put in a position of trust again.

It would be the easier path. Just let him rot somewhere.

(I am reminded, though hardly the same calibre of wrongdoing, of the late Rev. Dale Crampton, a well-known west-end priest who was convicted in the 1980s of sexually assaulting numerous altar boys. He was handed an eight-month jail term, then disappeared from view. An alcoholic pedophile, he took his own life in 2010, found dead in the parking lot of his highrise apartment.)

Instead, the church, one supposes, is practising what it preaches. It is giving a punished sinner another chance.

I say it is the wiser course to put the chastened priest front-and-centre, make no attempt to hide his history, let him serve as a daily reminder that clerics are flawed and mortal like the rest of us — let the public know, all the bishops and cardinals aside, this secret won’t be kept.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email [email protected]

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

10 Responses to Egan: Ottawa’s Father Joe gets his second chance — and that’s a good thing

  1. Sylvia says:

    I would venture that the story got out in the open and then to police because and only because Citizen reporters did a darn good job of reporting .

    That aside, I am at a loss for words. It’s no big deal if our priests break the laws of God and state and betray the trust of parishioners because then, after all, they can ” better understand and counsel parishioners with real-life problems”?!!!!!

    And, somehow, according to Mr. Egan, we Roman Catholics are better served with convicted criminals in our sanctuaries and confessions? If it’s public knowledge their presence is a blessing in disguise?

    Really??

    The blind leading the blind

    • Bob says:

      A murder wrote a third of the New Testament. It isn’t out of character for us to accept people who scandalize us (pedophiles definitely excepted!)

  2. Suzanne says:

    Dear Sylvia,
    I think it’s sad and misguided that we expect human beings who happen to do the incredibly difficult jobs of the clergy to be perfect. If you believe in God, only God is perfect. Priests are sinners, just like the rest of us.
    And the other glaring and enormous issue is that having an addiction is not a sin. When are people like you in our society going to get off their pretentious, ignorant high horses, put on the mantle of humility that Jesus wore, and look for ways to accept the sinners, and the sick, and look for ways to understand, and allow them to heal and become useful again.
    Father Joe has had to put his journey, with its failings, illnesses, and healing, out there for everyone to see, criticize and judge. Have you?

    • 1 abandoned sheep says:

      Suzanne, what are you on? You say Father Joe has had to put his journey (stealing) — out there for everyone to see, criticize and judge. Do you remember he told the parishioners he was innocent? Do you remember he claimed addiction led to his stealing? Do you remember, he did not come forward on his own, he had to be charged by the Police? Shake your head until it clears up!

    • Bob says:

      Actually the Catechism does regard addiction as sin – not the ongoing addiction, perhaps, but the conditions you allowed yourself that got you there.

      “2290 The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.”

      We do need to accept sinners – but that means accepting them as who they actually are; not trying to find ways in our minds to excuse what they’ve done just because we happen to like them.

      Fr. Joe really hurt me with what he did. He was a good friend, and he was my first window on to the fact that people sometimes really are not who they say they are. I’ve learned a lot about what forgiveness means through this – because he really did hurt me and my fellow parishioners (the ones who’ve opened their eyes, that is.)

      And yet it remains to forgive this man who hurt me; not to pretend that there are valid excuses for what he did – there are not. But to actually forgive.

  3. jg says:

    “When are people like you in our society going to get off their pretentious, ignorant high horses, put on the mantle of humility”

    ….”out there for everyone to see, criticize and judge. Have you?”

    Isn’t it amazing how sometimes one sees in others his/her own challenges, Suzanne. Be patient and sometimes quiet. That too will work if you have a little “faith”…
    ….”ignorant high horses” and “humility” in the same sentence! Humm!
    Your intentions are good, the words are confusing.
    Take care and read your own words, with humility.
    You said it:…”only God is perfect”.
    The intention is what matters and what we struggle to understand.
    jg

  4. northern fancy says:

    The most astonishing part of Suzanne’s poison pen letter is the first word: “Dear….” Clearly she regards Sylvia as anything but…. Any claim – on Suzanne’s part – to be civil does not apply. Why does Suzanne bother pretending?

    As a reader from another region of Canada, I am repeatedly perplexed by the vitrol from the fr. J. LeClair supporters. It appears to be a strategy to keep matters “alive” and the tone nasty.

    Can’t figure it out.

    • PJ says:

      NF…don’t bother trying to figure them out. Save your energy for the fight against pervert collars and their protectors. Most times the parishioners are just blind sheep with misguided loyalties anyway.

    • 1 abandoned sheep says:

      Northern Fancy- some crimes and scandals take a lot of dirt to cover them up until they are not recognizable. This is one of those cases. And I knew that Priest.

  5. jg says:

    I am very surprised he relocated just minutes from a Casino…There might have been a more out of the way location away from the temptation; another bad decision by all involved…He might be better suited in the retail business than he was or can be as a priest. What is the quote about serving two masters?…He is not out of that confusion and may never be…The problem has just been moved…as in the past! The very definition of insanity: repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome…

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