21 January 2014
By Joe Lofaro Metro
Joe Lofaro/Metro Father Joe LeClair, centre, is accompanied by his legal counsel Matthew Webber and Kim Hyslop outside the Ottawa courthouse Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, after the former Blessed Sacrament priest pleaded guilty to fraud and theft.
A disgraced priest who defrauded his Ottawa church of $130,000 over five years should serve a conditional sentence outside of jail, a defence lawyer argued Tuesday.
Father Joe LeClair, 56, pleaded guilty Monday to fraud and theft in the presence of several supportive parishioners.
LeClair’s lawyer, Matthew Webber, argued the priest should serve a conditional sentence of 18 to 24 months for the crimes he committed between 2006 and 2011.
The Crown, however, is seeking a sentence in the range of 18 months behind bars.
The court heard Monday the priest wrote cheques to himself and misdirected some of the $100 fees collected from marriage preparation courses during that time.
The priest also pocketed cash donations from the collection basket, according to an agreed statement of facts.
The document says he also misdirected funds to pay off gambling debts he incurred from visits to the Casino du Lac Leamy in Gatineau.
LeClair was diagnosed as a “pathological gambler” and has had problems with alcohol, anxiety, and depression, Webber said Tuesday, quoting a psychological assessment of the priest.
“The presence of an addiction cannot be minimized or ignored,” said Webber, adding, “The offences were the product of a disordered mind.”
Webber said LeClair is criminally responsible for his actions, but his psychological condition “does move him down that moral culpability spectrum to some extent.”
Crown prosecutor Peter Napier disagreed with that suggestion and argued that LeClair’s theft from parishioners and his $5,700 vacation in 2011 paid for by the church were not gambling-related.
Napier also questioned the admissibility of dozens of letters of support written by parishioners which Webber submitted to Ontario Court Justice Jack Nadelle during closing submissions.
One woman wrote, “I trust him with my life.”
But the Criminal Code states that a fraudster’s employment shall not be considered as a mitigating factor on sentencing.
“Letters are not to be considered as mitigating features because it was Father LeClair’s employment that permitted him to commit these offences,” said Napier. “Clearly his employment as a priest permitted him to access the funds of the church and the funds of his parishioners.”
Sentencing continues Wednesday.