Meghan Hurley, Postmedia News | November 18, 2014 11:48 PM ET
OTTAWA — A beloved Ottawa priest who stole more than $130,000 from Sunday collections and church accounts is being welcomed back by his former parishioners after his release from jail.
Father Joseph LeClair had been sentenced to a year in jail for a fraud that spanned five years. About $1.16-million had been deposited into LeClair’s personal account, including roughly $400,000 that could not be explained.
“He did the crime, he paid the time, and I think he should probably still have quite a large following,” Blessed Sacrament parishioner Frank Licari said Tuesday. “There’s never a Sunday where somebody doesn’t ask me or my daughter Joanne about him.”
Joanne Licari said that although years have passed since LeClair left Blessed Sacrament, parishioners continue to miss him and hope he can return as their priest.
Parishioners have also realized, in LeClair’s absence, what a difference he made to the parish, Ms. Licari said.
“People often say, ‘Out of sight, out of say out of mind,’ but it’s the opposite,” Ms. Licari said. “It’s almost a continual reminder something is missing.”
LeClair was granted a temporary absence by the Ontario Parole Board beginning on Nov. 9 and ending Tuesday.
It means LeClair was released from jail nine days early: He would have been released Tuesday after serving two-thirds of his sentence.
“You present as a man remorseful for your actions and the hurt you have caused those close to you,” the parole board said.
LeClair pleaded guilty on Jan. 20 to theft and fraud charges. He had initially proclaimed his innocence after the Ottawa Citizen first raised concerns about financial irregularities at the church in early 2011.
Those irregularities were confirmed by a Deloitte & Touche audit that found $1.16-million had been deposited into LeClair’s personal account between January 2006 and December 2010 and that $769,000 of that was his salary, legitimate stipends and gifts from parishioners or casino winnings.
Roughly $400,000 of the $1.16-million deposited into LeClair’s personal account could not be explained. For the purposes of a plea deal, the Crown accepted that LeClair defrauded Blessed Sacrament of $130,000.
The Ottawa Archdiocese received a $379,000 insurance settlement for money that was misappropriated from Blessed Sacrament during the last five years of LeClair’s tenure as parish priest.
Mr. Licari said he believes the situation forced LeClair to get the help he needed for addictions.
Forgive and forget: Ottawa priest welcomed back to church he stole thousands from
20 November 2014
By Nadine Kalinauskas
LeClair, a diagnosed pathological gambler, admitted the thefts were to help fund his gambling addiction.
Having been recently released from jail early for good behaviour — the parole board told LeClair they found him “remorseful” for his actions and the hurt he caused others — LeClair is being welcomed back by his former parishioners at Blessed Sacrament Church.
“He did the crime, he paid the time, and I think he should probably still have quite a large following,” Blessed Sacrament parishioner Frank Licari told the National Post. “There’s never a Sunday where somebody doesn’t ask me or my daughter Joanne about him.”
He added that he believed the situation forced LeClair to get help for his gambling addiction. Even before his sentencing, LeClair attended “extensive counselling.”
“People often say, ‘Out of sight, out of say out of mind,’ but it’s the opposite,” Joanne Licari said of LeClair’s absence at the church. “It’s almost a continual reminder something is missing.”
In a statement from January, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of the Archdiocese of Ottawa said that the church would work with LeClair so he can return to the ministry, CBC News reported.
“Despite this difficult decision affecting Father LeClair’s life, I know that he is relieved to have this painful moment behind him,” Prendergast said in the statement. “I share his desire, and that of the many people who supported him over the last two years, to move on and to look to the future.”
As a condition of his parole, LeClair will continue to receive counselling.