17 April 2011
Father Joseph LeClair was given a standing ovation after he apologized for the problems at Blessed Sacrament Parish on Saturday, admitted a “significant” problem to the congregation, but said that he did not steal church money.
“Some months ago I had to face up to the fact that my gambling was not just a harmless, stress-releasing activity as I had led myself to believe but … a significant problem in my life,” he said to about 200 people during the 4:30 p.m. mass.
“I experienced that which every person who has ever had a gambling problem can identify — a trap.”
LeClair, a renowned Ottawa priest who made Blessed Sacrament Parish one of the most successful in the city, said that he used his own money to gamble and won enough to keep him in the game.
LeClair said he met with the archbishop Saturday afternoon to apologize for embarrassment to the archdiocese and the church.
“There’s no question I should have moved more quickly,” he said.
“I should have ensured strong financial controls and transparency were in place so that I could respond immediately to any questions concerning the disposition of funds. I apologize fully and wholeheartedly.”
LeClair’s public apology comes on the heels of a Citizen story in which the paper learned that he received more than $137,000 in cash advances on his credit card at Casino du Lac-Leamy during 2009 and 2010.
The story revealed LeClair racked up personal credit card bills of more than $490,000 in those same years, according to documents obtained by the newspaper.
LeClair repaid Visa more than $424,000 during those years.
How he could afford to repay that much is not known, other than the fact that as a church pastor, LeClair earns a net salary of $24,400. He also receives money for officiating at weddings, funerals, baptisms and marriage preparation courses.
A review by the firm Deloitte and Touche LLP, took place in early March. Auditors raised questions about $250,000 worth of cheques issued to LeClair from church accounts between 2006 and 2010. LeClair had the authority during those years to issue a cheque, even to himself, without another signature.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said in a statement issued Saturday that as a citizen, LeClair has the right to privacy and to defend his reputation.
Prendergast said Msgr. Kevin Beach, vicar general of the Ottawa Archdiocese, met with LeClair “in a context of church discipline and fraternal concern … to establish past facts and norms for his future conduct.”
Prendergast said the audit is ongoing and once it is complete, the archdiocese “will act promptly and prudently to take whatever further steps are deemed necessary.”
Supporters of LeClair were outraged Saturday that the Citizen published a story about his gambling and the troubles at Blessed Sacrament Parish the week before Easter.
Many parishioners said they will stand behind the priest, but few would speak to the media as they piled into the church Saturday afternoon.
“I’d rather not say anything until I’ve heard father Joe’s side of the story,” one woman said before going into the church.
Another man yelled at a reporter until he was interrupted by a second parishioner.
“Jesus would not say ‘Talk to my lawyer,’” the parishioner said. “This man owes us answers.”
LeClair delivered those answers in a packed church Saturday afternoon.
“I feel I can share with you as best I can my response to this painful matter. Over the years I’ve shared with you and the greater Ottawa community some highlights of distress, depression, and my occasional bouts with those painful realities of life that many of us share,” LeClair said. “One side of that depression that I didn’t entirely realize is that I had a … gambling problem that had grown greater and faster over the last couple of years.”
After the mass, parishioners said LeClair delivered a heartfelt statement that is typical of the well-known priest.
“I think it’s sometimes tough that the world we live in is one where we put somebody under judgment for things that maybe they haven’t done, basically accusing somebody of theft,” said John Price who was married last week by LeClair. “The fact that he’s able to be an example of strength … and to talk openly and honestly about his personal struggles is an inspiration for those of us who try to maybe do better in our lives.”
Parishioner Kevin Tencarre said LeClair has always been transparent with the church finances.
“I do not believe for a second that he’s dipping into any kind of church finance,” he said.
“Everything else is just a personal thing. It’s none of our business. All we can do is pray for him and everyone else battling whatever forms of addictions.”
Jim Ovens, a member of the parish pastoral council, said in an interview Friday that he was aware LeClair has gone to the casino, but didn’t believe he had a problem.
Longtime parishioner Jim Dunlop said Saturday that he was shocked with the amount of money LeClair spent in 2009 and 2010, but said the Citizen’s story has ruined the priest.
“He’s finished. You’ve killed that congregation. You have killed that congregation,” Dunlop said. “The whole parish is just going to be totally decimated by this. I don’t think you see the enormity of it.”
Dunlop said he has received phone calls from friends as far away as Deep River about LeClair.
“They know it’s the end. We’re done,” he said.
Kenneth Grattan, a former radio personality said the news about LeClair’s gambling has hurt the congregation.
“This man is an incredible human being,” Grattan said. “You have hurt a lot of people. You have the right to investigate and do whatever, but be responsible.”
Grattan said LeClair may have used money given to him from parishioners to finance his gambling.
Shirley Hamre said the parishioners stand behind LeClair.
“People do the very best they can in life,” Hamre said. “They have gifts and I think Father Joe has wonderful gifts and I think he gives a lot of those gifts away. He’s helped a lot of people.”