Published on: February 26, 2015
Last Updated: February 26, 2015 9:51 PM EST
Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen
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]