Leclair believes police inquiry exonerates him, lawyer says

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Ottawa Citizen

18 September 2011  

BY MEGHAN HURLEY AND ANDREW DUFFY 

Father Joe LeClair, photographed inside Blessed Scarament Church in the Glebe in April, 2009, admitted in April, 2011, he had a gambling problem after the Citizen published a story that revealed the extent of his addiction and the ease with which he could access church funds.

Father Joe LeClair, photographed inside Blessed Scarament Church in the Glebe in April, 2009, admitted in April, 2011, he had a gambling problem after the Citizen published a story that revealed the extent of his addiction and the ease with which he could access church funds.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — Blessed Sacrament’s embattled former pastor says he believes a police investigation will clear him of allegations that he misappropriated money from the church.

Through his lawyer, Father Joseph LeClair indicated Sunday that he is upset with his treatment by diocesan officials and believes that they — along with others at Blessed Sacrament — should bear some responsibility for the state of the church’s finances.

“I must emphasize that the parish council and its finance subcommittee are the oversight bodies for all parish finances,” LeClair’s lawyer, Ian Stauffer, said in a statement released Sunday. “The Archdiocese ultimately has responsibility for reviewing and auditing the financial statements submitted by the parish council. Unfortunately, the entire focus has been placed on Father Joe, without any questions being asked as to the role of these bodies during the last five years.”

LeClair believes he was treated unfairly by the archdiocese and was not given the opportunity to continue his duties at Blessed Sacrament, even in a limited capacity, Stauffer said.

In Stauffer’s statement, LeClair revealed that he was forced to resign from Blessed Sacrament in late May.

Previously, he had told parishioners his decision to leave Blessed Sacrament was one made in concert with Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. Leclair is now in a specialized addictions treatment program in Aurora.

“It should be noted that he was given no opportunity to carry on his ministry, even in a limited capacity,” Stauffer said. “No local counselling was offered. He was given an ultimatum to resign from his Parish.”

What’s more, according to the Stauffer letter, LeClair continues to be denied a copy of the Deloitte and Touche audit of Blessed Sacrament’s books. Results of that audit formed the basis for the decision by the diocese to refer the matter to the Ottawa police for investigation.

LeClair is also apparently unhappy with the timing of that move: “Father Joe has been sequestered in Aurora,” Stauffer said, “and, approximately two weeks before the end of the program, the Archdiocese decided to make a public statement that the police would now become involved.”

The Ottawa police fraud section, under the direction of Staff Sgt. Bill Sullivan, will probe financial irregularities at Blessed Sacrament during the last five years of LeClair’s tenure as church pastor.

Results of a six-month review by the Archdiocese of Ottawa — including an audit by Deloitte and Touche LLP — were announced in a letter issued Saturday and Sunday to parishioners of the Glebe church.

“As for the issues touching on Fr. LeClair’s administration of the parish, our review has found that there are questionable transactions that require further investigation,” concludes the letter from Msgr. Kevin Beach, vicar general of the archdiocese.

“As a result, we have referred the matter to the Ottawa Police Service for investigation.”

The review found a series of problems with financial practices at the church when LeClair was pastor.

It raised concerns about the handling of Sunday collections, the misuse of church accounts, the failure to set aside refugee sponsorship money and deficient accounting practices.

Beach said in his two-page letter that the diocese still has unanswered questions about LeClair’s use of church funds.

“We have not been able to substantiate some amounts that have been claimed by him as parish expenses,” Beach wrote. “In addition, other amounts were paid to Fr. LeClair which were designated as discretionary allowances and stipends.”

The letter gives no indication as to how much money is at issue.

Parishioners said Sunday they believe LeClair has been unfairly put in the spotlight.

“It’s very disturbing that someone would be thrown under the bus like that. It’s sickening,” a woman, who refused to give her name, said after Sunday mass. “You didn’t crush one life, you crushed many lives with this.”

The woman wouldn’t comment on the announcement that the police have been called in to investigate.

“That’s irrelevant, really, because there’s nothing concrete,” she said.

Parishioner Michael Burch said Sunday if there is concrete information about financial irregularities at the church, it hasn’t been provided to parishioners.

But Burch, a chartered accountant, said he doesn’t think everyone would understand the results of an audit if they were released to the parish.

He believes stricter financial controls should be put into place at all Catholic churches. “It would take a lot of burden off the new father, Father Joe and all the other churches to have some set protocol for here’s how we account for everything.”

Ruth Norfolk said the archdiocese has to call in the police to investigate to cover its bases.

“It has to happen. It has to be a responsible parish and we all want it to be over and done with,” Norfolk said. “Whatever is needed to do that, let it be done.”

Leclair admitted in April that he had a gambling problem after the Citizen published a story that revealed the extent of his addiction and the ease with which he could access church funds.

“His pastoral and counselling duties were such that he was on call every hour of the day and night,” Stauffer said. “This is not an excuse for his gambling, but his parishioners need to understand what drove him to this addiction.”

An immensely popular priest, LeClair, 53, has repeatedly denied taking church money or using it to gamble.

Blessed Sacrament reported deficits in four of the past five years despite taking in $2.95 million during that time.

The archdiocese’s review found that the church was in a net deficit position of $40,718 by the end of May, just after LeClair’s departure.

The church’s financial position was so poor by then that it did not have enough cash in the bank to cover $50,000 worth of refugee sponsorships. Blessed Sacrament had received two private donations, worth $25,000 each, but the money had gone into the church’s main account, rather than a reserve fund.

In his letter, Beach told parishioners that the decision to bring in the police was a difficult one given LeClair’s success as a community builder, counsellor and leader at Blessed Sacrament. “There are, however, important issues that need to be investigated, in the context of a matter that has received broad community interest.”

LeClair, who made Blessed Sacrament Parish one of the most successful in the city, has insisted that he used his own money and winnings to fund his casino gambling.

In April, the Citizen revealed that LeClair received more than $137,000 in cash advances on his credit card at Casino du Lac-Leamy during 2009 and 2010. He withdrew up to $9,427.50 using Visa on a single night, according to documents obtained by the newspaper.

LeClair racked up personal credit card bills of more than $490,000 during those two years and repaid Visa more than $424,000.

At the time, LeClair earned a net salary of $24,400; he also received money for marriage counselling and for officiating at weddings, baptisms and funerals.

As Blessed Sacrament’s pastor, LeClair was responsible to the diocese for the financial administration of the church, but the church’s financial system relied heavily on trust. LeClair could write cheques to himself from church accounts without a counter-signature. What’s more, he did not have to submit corresponding receipts in order to have a cheque approved.

The church had a finance committee, but it didn’t meet as a group last year. The former chair of that committee, Herve Dejordy, served as the church’s principal accountant, but did not fulfil the role of comptroller. He considered himself a bookkeeper.

The diocese received annual financial statements from Blessed Sacrament, but did not routinely audit them.

The church’s handling of collection money was also less than rigorous when compared to other parishes.

Collection proceeds were kept in canvas bags in LeClair’s unlocked office in the church rectory. The money was often not counted until Monday or Tuesday. Weekly collection totals were not published in the church bulletin.

Auditors were first called in to review the church’s books in early March after diocesan officials became aware of financial irregularities.

Deloitte and Touche auditors initially raised questions about some $250,000 worth of cheques issued to LeClair from church accounts between 2006 and 2010.

The auditors recommended measures to improve financial accountability at the church, including that all cheques be counter-signed.

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