Supporters of a “pathological gambler” priest who fleeced the flock he’d grown to 10,000 souls gasped Wednesday as a judge sentenced him to a year behind bars and probation instead of house arrest Wednesday.
There was a smattering of applause as an emotional Father Joseph LeClair, 57, left court after a private meeting with friends and former parishioners at Blessed Sacrament, heading with a police officer towards the cellblock.
“He is a priest forever,” said Ellen Vanneste, who has known LeClair since before his 1988 ordination and called him a kind-hearted and compassionate priest in a church that seems quicker to act on missing money than abused kids.
“(There) but for the grace of God go all of us.”
But Judge Jack Nadelle said that hundreds of letters of support should not save LeClair from jail.
That reputation is how he was able to bilk his Glebe parish out of an admitted $130,000 — although there was a total of $400,000 in unexplained deposits into his personal accounts from 2006 to 2010.
“The fact that the accused was in a position of trust is the most aggravating factor,” Nadelle said. “Every time he took some money, he was committing a criminal offence.
“Even when caught or knowing he would be caught, he lied to his parishioners.”
In April 2011, with news of the allegations set to break, LeClair told parishioners from the pulpit that he had a gambling problem but the money he wagered was his own.
In January, he pleaded guilty to fraud and theft. The Crown sought 18 months jail.
A psychiatrist reported that the “driven” priest became a compulsive gambler after drinking to cope with anxiety and depression caused by overwork spiralled out of control.
The charismatic priest in a parish with “very relaxed, if not non-existent” record keeping, stole from the collection plate, pocketed fees from marriage courses and padded expenses to repay cash advances at the Casino du Lac Leamy, often several in a day.
LeClair was in a “state of shock,” said a disappointed Matthew Webber after the sentencing.
The defence lawyer disputed the judge’s contention that the impact on his client has been minimal because he still has a job — unlike others who steal at work.
The city’s archibishop said in January that LeClair had courageously admitted to his addictions and the church would support the talented priest in his recovery and desire to return to his ministry of 25 years.
Being barred from his calling has been an “extreme hardship,” Webber said, but he predicted LcClair would be out on probation in about six months and ready to move on with his life.
“Father Joe will survive,” Webber said.