The Ottawa Sun
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By Tony Spears ,Ottawa Sun Joseph LeClair, former priest of Blessed Sacrement church in the Glebe, is photographed leaving the Ottawa courthouse on Monday Jan. 20, 2014. LeClair pleaded guilty after he exploited lax bookkeeping to pilfer $130,000 in church funds to fund his gambling debts, according to an agreed statement of facts read out in court. Darren Brown/Ottawa Sun/QMI Agency
Father Joseph LeClair’s selflessness was his downfall.
Perpetually beset by needy parishioners, he sought relief in Scotch and gambling, his defence lawyer argued Tuesday.
Nonsense, Crown counsel countered.
Father Joe took advantage of his saint-like reputation to perpetrate a five-year, $130,000 fraud on his church, prosecutor Peter Napier said.
Two very different descriptions of Blessed Sacrament church’s popular former priest emerged as his sentencing hearing continued.
Napier believes LeClair — who pleaded guilty Monday to fraud and theft charges — deserves 18 months jail for exploiting the church’s lax accounting practices and its trusting congregation between 2006 and 2011.
But Matthew Webber argued LeClair, 56, should be given an 18- to 24-month conditional sentence — essentially house arrest.
“His remorse is complete and across the board,” said Webber, characterizing LeClair’s very public downfall as “ruin and humiliation.”
“It’s profound remorse. It’s hard to overstate it.”
More importantly, said Webber, LeClair was vulnerable to the seduction of gambling in part because of underlying anxiety and depression problems, for which he took medication.
As his efforts at Blessed Sacrament caused the church population to soar, the “workaholic” priest who could never say no to anyone became a victim of his own success.
He took to knocking back six to eight Scotches a night and frequenting the Lac Leamy casino, Webber said, noting a psychiatrist diagnosed LeClair as a pathological gambler.
“The urge to gamble is irresistible to the pathological gambler,” Webber said, though he acknowledged the priest was “utterly and completely responsible for what he did.”
Society would be better served if LeClair, now living in Edmonton, performed community service as part of his conditional sentence, he said.
Napier, however, said the case cries out for the clink.
“It is a large-scale fraud perpetrated over a significant period of time,” he said.
The priest should have known to seek help.
“Father LeClair was well-schooled in the catalogue of human frailties,” Napier said.
And not all of his thieving had to do with gambling.
LeClair, for instance, cut himself a $5,700 cheque to cover the cost of a vacation.
He also directed that fees for the church’s marriage preparation courses be paid in cash. Over the five-year fraud only $13,000 of what should have been $157,000 in revenue made it into church bank accounts; LeClair later admitted some of the money went to gambling debts.
LeClair is expected to address the court after sentencing arguments conclude Wednesday.
Father Joe pleads guilty to stealing $130Gs from church
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Father Joe never turned away a sinner seeking help, especially when the sinner was himself.
And Joseph LeClair helped himself to an awful lot — to the tune of $130,000, stolen from church coffers.
The problem gambler and beloved former priest at the Glebe’s Blessed Sacrament church pleaded guilty to fraud and theft charges Monday.
Out of $400,000 in unexplained cash deposits to his personal bank accounts, LeClair, 56, admitted to defrauding the church and its parishioners of $130,000 between 2006 and 2011.
Nothing was sacred, not even the collection plate.
Over five years he deposited nearly $17,000 in cash — the product of his parishioner’s generosity — into his own accounts. In a 2012 police interview, he admitted to using the cash to repay gambling debts.
He also wrote himself almost $62,000 in cheques from church accounts, often using the funds to pay down his credit card.
“These payments were frequently made on his credit card following a number of cash advances or withdrawals at Casino du Lac-Leamy,” said Crown prosecutor Peter Napier, reading from an agreed statement of facts.
Though the court heard a psychiatrist diagnosed LeClair as a “pathological gambler,” Napier noted he also vacationed with parishioners and reimbursed them in January 2011 with a church cheque for $5,700.
The memo said “Fr. Joe X-mas.”
Despite the range of his pilfering, the priest had no shortage of supporters in court with him.
“He really gave until he had nothing left to give,” parishioner Joyce Fournier told the court. “It really was just how he was made.
Fournier was one of three parishioners to testify for LeClair at the sentencing hearing.
She told defence lawyer Kim Hyslop that he had held her life together through emotionally-wrenching times.
“He would offer support and hope,” she said. “He doesn’t like to refuse anyone who is in need.”
Even now he continues to provide counselling and support to her and her children.
“They are who they are today because of his involvement and his investment of time and love,” she said.
LeClair made the same investment in the church, transforming a dwindling congregation into a thriving religious community of thousands.
At its peak, the church also had hundreds of volunteers to run programs like marriage counselling. More often than not, however, the $100 cash fee would end up in his cassock.
He lavished meals and alcohol on volunteers to thank them, though it was not clear from testimony whether he or the church paid.
“We’d all go for a nice dinner and some laughter and some drinks,” Fournier said. “He was constantly doing volunteer appreciation.”
Lawyers begin sentencing submissions Tuesday morning.