September 28, 2011
Nobody is asking the Ottawans who worship at Blessed Sacrament Parish to stop being proud of their congregation or to stop loving their former pastor, Father Joseph LeClair. It is possible to respect Father Joe’s remarkable work as a spiritual leader and counsellor while acknowledging that the diocese has a responsibility to maintain good records and investigate financial irregularities.
Indeed, that responsibility extends not only to parishioners, but also to all Canadian taxpayers. This is not merely an internal matter, as some parishioners would have it. Churches benefit from the generous incentives for charity in Canada’s tax system. In Ontario, taxpayers who give more than $200 to a charity receive federal and provincial tax credits worth about 46 per cent of their donations. And the effects of financial difficulties can be felt beyond the church; for example, a deficit at Blessed Sacrament has left it without adequate cash on hand to cover third-party donations intended for the sponsorship of a refugee family. So it’s crucial that religious organizations be accountable and transparent. And it is the role of the media to ask questions whenever the answers might be in the public interest.
To its credit, the Archdiocese of Ottawa is not trying to hide or shrug off its questions about Blessed Sacrament’s finances. It recently concluded several months of review, which included an audit from Deloitte and Touche. In a recent letter to parishioners, Msgr. Kevin Beach wrote, “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. As a result, we have referred the matter to the Ottawa Police Service for investigation.”
This was the right thing to do if the diocese felt there were matters the police should consider. It is worth noting that the police and Crown might very well find no grounds for any charges.
LeClair admitted in the spring that he has a gambling problem; he resigned as pastor and is seeking treatment. He has said he financed his gambling with his own money.
The diocese has been working to improve parish financial administration since these concerns came to light, and it has acknowledged accounting practices were substandard. It must bear some of the responsibility for letting the books get into such a state in the first place.
Whether or not charges are laid against LeClair, the diocese deserves credit for facing this challenge now head on and endeavouring to get at the truth.