A jury in Windsor has convicted a southern Ontario Catholic priest of embezzling more than $150,000 from his Tecumseh church to fund a lavish lifestyle that included fine food and Disney theme park trips.

Assistant Crown attorney Tom Meehan said Thursday he will seek jail time for Rev. Robert Couture.

Couture could face up to 10 years in jail, Meehan said outside the Ontario court of justice in Windsor.

Couture, 52, was released on a promise to appear Feb. 5, when a date will be set for sentencing.

Jurors began deliberations at 5 p.m. Wednesday before breaking at 8:30 p.m. They returned a guilty verdict at about 10 a.m. Thursday.

Meehan said he was pleased with the jury's verdict, calling Couture a trusted figure in the community who broke that trust.

During the trial, which started Nov. 24, the jury heard Couture used the money on trips to Europe, New York, Disney theme parks and fine dining.

Forensic audit

Couture was parish priest at Ste. Anne Parish's church in Tecumseh, just east of Windsor, when parish officials asked KPMG to conduct a forensic audit of the church's books. That investigation found thousands of dollars in missing funds between 2002 and 2010, and prompted the parish to contact police.

Ontario Provincial Police said the audit revealed at least $169,000 in irregularities, and Couture was charged with one count of theft over $5,000 nearly two years ago.

The Crown accused Couture of stealing in several ways, including taking money from collection plates and charging fees to funeral homes.

Couture would charge $260 for "prayer teams" to come to funerals, but he would then give the church cheques for only $125 to $140, and pocket the rest.

Second bank account

Couture told the jury he opened a second account for Ste. Anne without permission from the diocese.

When asked by the Crown why he needed this separate TD Bank account, considering Ste. Anne's already had an account at National Bank, Couture said he used his "pastoral judgment."

Couture was the only person able to access the account, which he said he opened in order to simplify the distribution of money donated from his parishioners. He also said the bank account allowed him to give money discreetly to financially struggling parishioners and avoid shaming them in front of people.

Couture testified he took money from the candle donation box and, for the most part, used that cash to fill petty cash.

The priest earned an estimated $85,000 a year before taxes, according to evidence presented in court.

His diocesan salary was $35,000, including $12,000 for his room and board. Couture earned an additional $10,000 as a school board trustee and $3,000 from teaching. 

The rest, about $40,000, came from services such as funerals, weddings and baptisms, he said. 

Defence lawyer Pat Ducharme called the verdict "life altering" and said he has yet to discuss with his client whether to appeal the decision.

Diocese prays for closure

Couture remains a priest.

Following the verdict, the Diocese of London insisted it has measures in place to keep finances in check.

"The criminal justice system has taken its course. We hope and pray that the verdict and subsequent sentencing may bring some measure of closure for all those involved," diocesan communications co-ordinator Emma Moynihan said in an emailed statement.

Moynihan said the diocese has a  number of financial security controls in place that are enhanced often, including:

  • Audits of parishes, at the time of a pastor change or every five years, whichever comes first. These have been conducted since 1970.
  • Annual audits of the Diocese of London, including the parishes, by an independent public accounting firm.
  • Two signatures required on all cheques, both at the Diocese of London chancery offices and for all parish bank accounts.
  • An internal audit program, developed in conjunction with the diocesan audit committee and an independent auditing firm, which began in 2011.

Moynihan said not all of the security measures were in place during the time Couture was stealing from the church.