Sunday, July 08, 2012

Haven't learned a thing

I thought I'd posted about this story last year when it first broke, but looking over my list, it appears I didn't. I can't find the original story on the Ottawa Citizen archives, just this .pdf version. To recap briefly, here in Ottawa there is a Catholic parish called the Church of the Blessed Sacrament. Like a lot of downtown parishes, it went through a decline during the 80s and 90s and lost a lot of people. But a new priest, Father Joe LeClair, took over in the late 90s and turned it around. Very charismatic, likable guy - there was an admiring profile of him in the paper back in 2004, and he sounded like a happy-clappy kind of guy, not too deep in his theology, but I know a lot of people like that sort of enthusiastic atmosphere. Doesn't appeal to me, but that's just my taste - I like a lot more gravity and ceremony.

Anyway, it turned out he had a gambling problem, and the Citizen scooped the story with a big frontpage exposé. They've been following it ever since.

The first result of the story was that the bishop, now aware of the problem, ordered an outside audit of the parish's finances. Like a lot of parishes, the finances were handled by parish volunteers, and it turned out there was very little control or oversight of how money was accessed. Fr. LeClair's salary was only $24,000 per year (I was shocked by how little it was) and he'd been spending almost half a million dollars over the previous two years. He maintained he hadn't taken any money from the church, but some explanation had to be found for this huge discrepancy.

After the auditors finished their investigation, a few months later, the diocese turned the matter over to the police. The reaction of the parishioners is what shocked me.

There was a strong push to sweep the whole matter under the carpet and anger at the diocese for involving outsiders.
Speaker after speaker criticized both the Citizen for its coverage of the case and the diocese for its decision to refer the matter to the Ottawa police for investigation.

One parishioner accused the diocese of failing to show LeClair the kind of compassion offered Nova Scotia Bishop Raymond Lahey, who was allowed to stay at a Catholic residence in Ottawa while he awaited trial on charges of importing child pornography.
Lahey might have been given a place to stay (and a location where the police would know where to find him) but he wasn't spared police investigation of his own wrongdoing, so I'm not sure what comparison the person thought he was making.
Others said LeClair had been "thrown under the bus" by the diocese despite revitalizing Blessed Sacrament and giving so thoroughly of himself as pastor.

Many wanted the matter resolved within the church family, rather than through the involvement of police.

I'm simply stunned to hear this sort of talk from ANY Catholic, after everything we've gone through in the past 10 years. Wasn't this the identical reasoning behind all the homosexual molestation coverups over the last decades? "We don't want to air our dirty linen in public, this is a church matter, it doesn't concern the police. We can handle it on our own."
LeClair suffered from a gambling addiction, an illness, and deserved to be embraced rather than "crucified," one said.
Yeah, that too, the "We mustn't be judgmental, we're all sinners and we have to help him" line which sent predators bouncing from treatment center to parishes all over the country.

The diocese deserves credit for thinking clearly on the matter:
But Msgr. Beach said the investigation is now in the hands of the Ottawa police, "who will take the investigation to its logical conclusion. … We are not going to withdraw the complaint."

The matter was referred to the police, Beach said, because the diocese did not have the expertise or investigative power to address questions raised by the church's review of Blessed Sacrament's finances.

Just last week, this story returned to the headlines when the Ottawa police laid charges against Leclair for fraud and misappropriation of funds. (Money laundering too, though that's not explained.) This involves a lot of money, almost a quarter of a million dollars. No way could a local parish with nothing but the efforts of its parishioners handle such a matter. After nearly a year, it's to be hoped that sore feelings have died down a bit, and people realize that this couldn't be hushed up. But it's worth noting that in this case it was the LAITY that wanted to evade the hard admissions, not the hierarchy.

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