OTTAWA — A Prince Edward Island priest, once the popular leader at Blessed Sacrament church in the Glebe region of Ottawa, pleaded guilty Monday to fraud and theft after admitting he wrote parish cheques to himself and stole money from the collection plate.
Meanwhile, the Crown dropped charges of money laundering and breach of trust, which were laid in July 2012 after an 11-month police investigation.
Rev. Joseph LeClair, who is originally from Tignish, pleaded guilty to fraud and theft based on an agreed statement of facts that said the Archdiocese of Ottawa hired the accounting firm Deloitte and Touche to audit church finances after media reports about LeClair’s gambling in 2011.
The audit found that $1.16 million was deposited into LeClair’s account over a five-year period, but $769,000 of that was his salary, legitimate stipends, gifts from parishioners or casino winnings.
The statement of facts said roughly $400,000 could not be explained, but Assistant Crown Attorney Peter Napier said he accepted for the purpose of the plea deal that the priest defrauded Blessed Sacrament of $130,000.
The Ottawa police were called in to investigate the misuse of parish funds in October 2011.
What police found was that LeClair secured “significant” cash advances on his credit card between Jan. 1, 2006, and May 31, 2011, a majority of which were made at the Casino du Lac-Leamy.
Police found LeClair, 56, wrote $61,800 worth of cheques to himself from the church’s mass account, which were identified as stipends and often used to pay down his personal credit card debt.
“Under the rules of the church and the parish, Father LeClair was not entitled to receive these funds that he claimed as stipends,” Napier read from the agreed statement of facts.
Police also found that only $13,170 out of $157,000 in revenue from marriage preparation courses over five years was deposited into the church account.
LeClair insisted that couples who took the course pay the $100 fee in cash, the agreed statement of facts said.
The $13,170 that was deposited into the church account was paid by cheque, court heard.
In an interview with Sgt. Richard Dugal that lasted more than six hours, the former priest admitted that $35,000 of the marriage course revenue was used to pay his gambling debts.
LeClair also admitted that more than $16,000 over five years in collection plate money was deposited into his personal account, court heard Monday, and was used to repay his gambling debts.
Ottawa Archbishop Terence Prendergast issued a written statement saying: “Despite this difficult decision affecting Fr. LeClair’s life, I know that he is relieved to have this painful moment behind him. 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.
“Fr. LeClair admitted to the addictions which were harmful to him personally and to his pastoral ministry. As we have from the first day when Fr. LeClair’s problems became known to us, we continue to support Fr. LeClair in his recovery.”
Meghan Hurley is a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen