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article imageOntario priest guilty of stealing up to $234,000 from his church

By Megan Hamilton     Dec 12, 2015 in Crime
Tecumseh - A clergyman who was found guilty Thursday of allegedly stealing up to $234,000 from his church will retain the title of priest.
A jury only needed a few hours to deliberate before finding Rev. Robert Couture,52, guilty of theft over $5,000.
The Catholic Diocese of London won't move to defrock the former pastor of Tecumseh's Ste. Anne Parish, but they also don't plan to place him in a church, said Diocese spokeswoman Emma Moynihan, according to The National Post.
"He will still have the title of priest but he won't have any of his faculties," she noted, and said the only time the diocese tries to defrock priests is in sexual abuse cases. "It's very difficult to get the title of priest removed. It's a decision that the Pope has to make. So as of right now it is unlikely that title will be removed."
Assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan said he plans to seek jail time for Couture, who could face up to 10 years in jail, CBC News reports.
Jurors started deliberations on Wednesday at 5 p.m. before breaking at 8:30 p.m. They resumed Thursday and returned a guilty verdict about 10 a.m.
Couture was released with a promise to appear Feb. 5, when a date for sentencing will be set.
Couture, who lives in the Windsor area, was the pastor of Ste. Anne parish in suburban Tecumseh between 2002 and 2010, The Catholic Register reports.
The trial lasted nearly three-weeks at the Ontario Provincial Court, and the jury heard that Couture had allegedly taken money from numerous sources, including collection plates and candle boxes. It's also alleged that he set up a "de facto fee system" for weddings, baptisms and funerals where he kept most of the money for himself, Meehan said.
Couture was arrested in 2013 after a two-year probe, and at first Essex County OPP said he stole more than $180,000, the Windsor Star reports. Then the jury heard the amount could be as high as $234,000. During the trial, Meehan said that the actual amount will probably never be known.
Jurors were given piles of documents and heard testimony from about 20 people during their deliberations. Bishop Ronald Fabbro and Couture also took the witness stand.
"There were a number of schemes involved in this case, so the evidence was as complicated as the schemes that were behind them," Meehan said. "He put a lot of thought into the way that he stole money from Ste. Anne's Parish and that's reflected in all the witnesses and all the paperwork. So it took some time to get it all out."
Even with all that paperwork, defense lawyer Patrick Ducharme said he believes it was a matter of credibility.
He added that he thinks juries listen to the evidence and decide issues of credibility and issues of which parts of the evidence they do or don't accept. He is also skeptical as to whether juries spend all of their time trying to act as accountants on their own.
"I don't know exactly what they considered but I think this was a case about credibility," Ducharme said.
At one point, Couture told the jury he opened a second bank account for the parish without the diocese's permission, CBC News reports. The Crown asked him why he needed the separate TD Bank account, since Ste. Anne's had an account at National Bank. Couture replied that he used his "pastoral judgment."
He was the only person who could access the account, and he said he opened it in order to simplify the distribution of money that his parishioners donated. He further said the bank account allowed him to discreetly give money to parishioners who were struggling financially and avoid shaming them in front of others.
Evidence provided at court showed that Couture earned an estimated $85,000 before taxes.
He earned $35,000 through the diocese, and that included $12,000 for room and board. He also earned $10,000 as a school board trustee and $3,000 from teaching. The rest, about $40,000, came from various services, including baptisms, weddings, and funerals, he said.
Ducharme described the verdict as "life altering" and said he and his client haven't discussed whether to appeal the decision.
Moynihan acknowledged that the conviction is another dent in the diocese's image, already damaged by numerous sex abuse scandals. Diocese officials "hope and pray" the conviction will give people some closure, she said, per the National Post.
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