Father Joseph LeClair, a popular Catholic priest, pleaded guilty Monday to defrauding Ottawa's Blessed Sacrament Church of $130,000 over a five-year period.

In July 2012, Ottawa police charged Joseph LeClair with one count each of fraud over $5,000 and theft over $5,000, which he pleaded guilty to Monday morning.

He had also been charged with breach of trust and laundering the proceeds of crime, but those charges were dropped.

LeClair’s preliminary hearing began Monday morning, with lawyers on both sides of the case discussing sentencing. The hearing adjourned in the afternoon and will resume Tuesday morning.

LeClair, who originally hails from Prince Edward Island, had attracted a large following in his 13 years at Blessed Sacrament Church in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood. He had a reputation as a charismatic speaker and community leader.

Archdiocese to work with, support LeClair in recovery

In an emailed statement released soon after LeClair's guilty plea, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said the archdiocese will 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," Prendergast is quoted as saying.

si-ott-father-joe-220

Joseph LeClair, originally hailing from P.E.I., left Blessed Sacrament Church in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood in May 2011. (youknowwhoiam.com)

He also said that while he was encouraged to deal with the matter outside of the criminal justice system, the archdiocese decided to complain to police in part because of "the need of our Catholic Church to be transparent" about the highly publicized case.

"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," the statement reads.

"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. Aware of his many talents and of his 25 years of effective pastoral ministry, we will work with Fr. LeClair in his desire to return to the exercise of his priestly ministry.”

Audit launched following media report

The Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa launched an audit of the church following a report that LeClair had racked up large credit card bills.

Police said the archdiocese filed a complaint in August of 2011 after the archdiocese completed the audit.

Fraud investigators looked into the period between January 2006 and May 2011, when LeClair left the parish. They alleged the priest misappropriated more than $240,000 in the form of cheques from the parish.

Police also alleged $160,000 in cash revenues were unaccounted for, while about $20,000 in furniture and household items belonging to the parish were taken from the rectory when LeClair left.

A portion of those items was recovered at a residence outside of Ontario, police have said.

Attendance drops without popular priest

Attendance has been cut in half since LeClair left, Blessed Sacrament Church said.

On Sunday, LeClair’s former parishioners continued to support him and claimed the media made him seem like a “monster.” 

Others said they would pray for him and they forgive LeClair, who apologized to his parishioners before he left and admitted he had a gambling problem and struggled with depression.

Joanne Licari, a parishioner for 15 years, said Monday she would welcome Father Joe back with open arms.

"It doesn't change the fact that he's done so much," said Licari. He's enriched my life and the lives of others in so many ways, and one doesn't have anything to do with the other."

"I myself saw the last maybe five or six years he was so rundown and so tired but he just never stopped, he was relentless, so I imagine the pressure was unbelievable and sometimes things happen," said Licari.

The church did say its finances are back in order after receiving about half-a-million dollars in donations.