Father Joe: Atonement, then forgiveness

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Will a judge make the difficult decision to send a charismatic cleric to jail?

The Ottawa Citizen

January 21, 2014


Father Joe: Atonement, then forgiveness

Father Joe LeClair, centre, leaves the Elgin Street courthouse.

Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto , Ottawa Citizen

Father Joe LeClair was somehow both a fabulous priest and a reckless human being, the physician who could not heal thyself.

Mass by day, counselling by evening, scotch by night, gambling by the wee hours — the narrative sketched out in court Tuesday was difficult to reconcile: that of a man who should either be canonized for endless good works or jailed for being a con in a collar.

Defence lawyer Matthew Webber spoke of the massive growth in the size of the congregation at Blessed Sacrament Church — LeClair apparently once did six weddings in one weekend — and the spike in demands on LeClair’s time and energy.

“At the exact same time as the church is blowing up, he’s blowing up,” referring to a spiral of gambling and drinking to, ostensibly, cope with the stress demands of the job.

It is a hard thing Justice Jack Nadelle now has to do: decide whether one of the city’s most charismatic clerics should spend time behind bars. The Crown would like 18 months or so; the defence wants a conditional sentence, served in the community.

In fairness, he should probably see the inside of a jail. There is plenty of case law that indicates ordinary mortals who commit similar, even smaller, theft and fraud end up incarcerated.

Only days ago, a former director at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group was sentenced to 15 months in jail for stealing $32,000 from the Royal.

Is there not a compelling argument to be made that people who know better — indeed, people who preach better for a living — should be punished even more severely than ordinary sinners, especially for repeated, calculated crimes?

And LeClair broke a collective trust. His role was to manage and provide spiritual guidance to the parish, not encourage adoration or accumulate wealth.

But think of it. He had the weekly collection cash kept in his room or a closet, instead of the safe. He asked for cash payment for marriage preparation courses, which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars. He made $22,000 a year but managed to run $1.16 million through his personal accounts in five years.

This sounds like a man with a plan.

As Assistant Crown attorney Peter Napier pointed out, this was not a weak moment but a period of bad behaviour over five years, and neither was it all about supporting gambling.

There was, for instance, $5,700 charged inappropriately for a holiday.

Nor, we should not forget, was this a man who finally stopped himself, or sought help, or voluntarily made amends. It was an only an exposé in the Citizen in 2011 that finally put the brakes on this madness.

He was, certainly, a damaged soul. According to a psychological report, LeClair became a pathological gambler, had an alcohol dependency and, for much of his adulthood, suffered from anxiety and, later, depression.

After immediately going into rehab in 2011, LeClair is now getting ongoing help as he stabilizes his life in Edmonton.

The archdiocese has indicated it supports his recovery and hopes he can one day resume duties as a priest.

We can only hope this will happen. Forgiveness is a central Christian tenet, and certainly we have a history of embracing fallen heroes.

But first comes suitable atonement.

The ordeal has clearly taken a toll. He looks older, greyer, with circles under his eyes. Yet, in some quarters, still beloved. He had a couple of dozen supporters present in court. His defence team submitted something like 200 letters of commendation.

“He has brought this humiliation on himself,” said Webber. “He has brought ruin and humiliation on his status as a practising Catholic priest.”

But to read the letters of support, said Webber, is to be overwhelmed. “It’s hard, at the end of the day, not be pretty impressed.”

This may all be true. But LeClair is not before the courts for being an overly compassionate pastor. He took at least $130,000 of someone else’s money. He knew better.

“Father LeClair,” submitted the Crown, “was well schooled in the catalogue of human frailties.”

So he was. Sins against God may land us in the confessional, sins against the state in a much harsher place.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896, or email kegan@ottawacitizen.com


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