Windsor priest guilty of stealing more than $170,000 from church

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • December 11, 2015

WINDSOR, ONT. - A jury found a former priest of St. Anne parish here guilty of stealing more than $170,000 from the church Dec. 10.

Fr. Robert Couture was pastor of the church in suburban Tecumseh between 2002 and 2010. He is currently on administrative leave from the Diocese of London and lives in the Windsor area. He is free under a promise to appear in court Feb. 5 when a sentencing date will be set. He could be sentenced to as long as 10 years in jail.

Couture, 53, was charged in 2013 with one count of theft over $5,000 after a two-year investigation, including a forensic audit by KPMG ordered by the diocese after financial irregularities were noticed. He was alleged to have stolen between $170,000 and $234,000 from the parish — money that he siphoned into a private account.

During the almost three-week trial in Ontario Provincial Court the jury heard that Couture, a native of Pain Court near Chatham, Ont., had taken money from a variety of sources including the collection plates and candle boxes, and also set up a “de facto fee system” for weddings, baptisms and funerals in which he pocketed most of the money for himself, according to assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan.

Meehan accused Couture of taking blatant advantage of his position as church leader.

“He was the pastor, what he said went,” the prosecutor said, describing Couture’s behaviour as an “abuse of the power he held.”

The priest was charged after the Diocese of London ordered a forensic audit after a regular diocese audit — part of a policy to conduct audits at times of pastor changes or every five years — raised numerous questions.

“There were a number of irregularities,” diocese spokeswoman Emma Moynihan said. “As a result the Diocese of London took this information to the police.”

During the trial the court heard that Couture opened a private account at the TD Bank and funnelled large sums of money into it. The diocese mandates that parishes have one account and that be through either the Bank of Montreal or National Bank. St. Anne’s has a National Bank account. It is against diocese policy to open another account, even in the church’s name, without its permission, which Couture did not seek.

“I believe it was my authority as pastor,” he said when asked why he opened the account.

During his tenure at St. Anne, Couture channelled a variety of funds into the TD account, some of which he paid out to other priests for services, to altar servers or even as charitable contributions. But the majority he kept for himself.

He also set up a system of fees for various ceremonies. For example, there would be a $250 charge for a funeral, where $100 would go to the church, $100 to the priest, $25 for the wake service person and $25 towards a dinner for altar servers. Similar fees were charged for weddings and baptisms.

But Couture maintained these weren’t mandatory. Instead, he told parishioners, “There is only one thing that I ask. I ask that you be just.”

Bishop Ronald Fabbro testified that Couture should not have been charging a fee for services.

“He shouldn’t have been charging a fee for himself,” the bishop said, noting, “that would be against diocesan policy.” David Savel, the diocese’s financial administrator, said churches can suggest a “recommended offering” for funerals and weddings but it isn’t required and the money is not to go to the priest.

Meanwhile Couture’s bank account continued to grow. His gross income was as much as $95,000 a year despite his priest’s salary of $23,000 plus room and board worth $12,000. He also made $10,000 as a school board trustee and $3,000 a year as a part-time teacher. The remainder of the money came from the questionable sources.

Couture said he eventually saved as much as $350,000 and bragged that he was on track for early retirement.

Meanwhile, the court heard that Couture lived a rather opulent lifestyle, including fine dining, Broadway plays and flights to Florida and Europe.

Following the verdict defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme said his client was “stunned and depressed” and it was too early to say if he will appeal. Ducharme disagreed with the high-flying image painted of the priest.

“He certainly didn’t live the life of a jetsetter or have a bunch of expensive clothing,” the lawyer said.

The diocese’s Moynihan said Couture had long ago had his priest faculties removed and a decision to remove his title as a priest would have to be made by the Pope.

As for St. Anne parishioners, Moynihan said they were “shocked and disappointed when this all came to light and it was of course very disappointing to the diocese that this measure of distrust occurred.”

(Sang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Give the POS the rope !!!!!!!!!

Herry
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Crazy he got more time for taking money, then all the others get for taking a child’s innocents.

ray c
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