Priest admits to gambling away church money at casino
A Catholic priest pleaded guilty Monday to fraud and theft, after admitting to gambling away money stolen from Ottawa’s Blessed Sacrament Church.
Father Joseph LeClair admitted at his preliminary hearing Monday morning that he has a gambling problem, and that he defrauded the church of $130,000 over a five-year period.
He admitted to pocketing $16,000 from the collection plate, and thousands of dollars in fees from marriage preparation courses, to pay his gambling debts accrued at Casino Lac Leamy.
LeClair, who had served 14 years at the church, stepped down in 2011 after media reports first exposed his gambling problem. In July 2012, he was charged with fraud over $5,000 and theft over $5,000, which he pleaded guilty to on Monday.
Despite stealing money to feed his gambling habit, a number of parishioners showed up in court Monday to support LeClair. One woman wiped tears from her eyes throughout the proceedings.
In a written statement issued Monday after LeClair’s guilty plea, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said the Ottawa Archdiocese will continue to support LeClair in his recovery.
"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,” the statement said.
Prendergast also said that despite being encouraged to pursue the matter outside the criminal system, he referred the issue to the police because of the “need of our Catholic Church to be transparent about such matters.”
“With Fr. LeClair, we now look to the future, understanding that the court’s decision on sentencing will be part of any future plan. In a courageous and very public way, Fr. LeClair admitted to the addictions which were harmful to him personally and to his pastoral ministry,” Prendergast wrote.
LeClair, who had a reputation as a charismatic speaker, had attracted a large following during his time at the church in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood.
But after reports of his gambling habits surfaced in 2011, The Archdiocese of Ottawa launched an audit on church finances.
Ottawa police allege more than $240,000 was misappropriated from 2006 to 2011, while an additional $160,000 was unaccounted for. It’s alleged that $20,000 in furniture and household items belonging to the parish was also taken from the rectory when LeClair left the church. Police say the items were later recovered from a house outside of Ontario.
LeClair will be back in court Tuesday.
With files from CTV Ottawa’s Kate Eggins and The Canadian Press