Father Joe LeClair and the power of forgiveness

In this big and mean world, it's hard to hold on to your beliefs when all around are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
It's also hard to believe in people. They are fallible. They let you down.
And when good people do bad things, they are punished, often severely, and you wonder a) how could this wonderful person do such a horrible thing and b) why can't we do as the Bible says and forgive them?
I've been running these thoughts for about a week now, in the harsh shadow of the public humiliation and downfall of Father Joe LeClair, once beloved priest in Ottawa, now inmate 54601 (or what ever number) at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.
This case has haunted me, as it has many others, since the popular priest was first accused by the Ottawa Citizen of stealing a mountain of cash from his parishioners and throwing it around the Casino Lac Leamy in an apparent drunken stupor. It wasn't his cash; he knew it and he didn't care. His crime started small, a little dip into the collection plate here, the palming of a cheque there. He realized, "wow, now that was easy" and so he started stealing bigger and bigger prizes, and using it for binging and vacationing in fancy resorts.
He lied to himself, I suppose, told himself that he deserved it. Wasn't he the priest who saved a declining church? Wasn't he a hero to his lambs? Hadn't he sacrificed his life for them? What was a few thou to pad his lifestyle when he did so much for the people of Ottawa?
For all the euphoria he must have felt winning, like most with the gambling affliction, Father Joe was also probably writhing in pain with each loss at the table or the slot machine. And the losses got bigger and bigger and he got sloppier in the committing of his crime.
And there the story ends with a good man possessed by demon, once a priest outstanding in his community, now reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble, Inmate 54601, ministering to his own deflated ego, alone with his conscience.
To many of us, at first at least, the jailing of Father Joe seemed harsh. He was a man who had contributed much to the community only to be cast off with all the other wretches: the B and E artists, the drug addicts, the drunkards and the kiddie diddlers.
Why, we asked, was Father Joe punished so harshly when what he needed was help?
But then I read Kelly Egan's insightful column in the Ottawa Citizen (you can read it here) in which he makes the case that jailing Father Joe in fact might have saved him from himself.
Father Joe now has an opportunity to reflect on his demons and cast them out.
He now has the opportunity to start over.
His community, for the most part, still loves him and will take him back in six months when he leaves his cage; he is not like his peers in jail who, no doubt, will have a hard time getting a second chance in life. A criminal record doesn't get you a job in this town or any other. It's a branding mark on a forehead which will follow an unfortunate to his or her grave, unless the person is lucky enough to have a community like Father Joe.
Jail is not the answer for more than half the inmates who share cells at our many correctional facilities. A lot of these folks, like Father Joe, suffer from mental illness. They need help, they need counseling, they need love, they need forgiveness.
I'm betting on the same Thanksgiving weekend when Father Joe leaves his cold and dreary nest, he will be welcomed by his brethren, while most of his peers will take that long cold walk alone into the night not knowing what will be their future.
My takeaway from the Father Joe story is that if we are willing to forgive a priest who stole so easily from the collection plate, then we must forgive the others, too. They need our love, our compassion and our forgiveness.
I've been told that, with every terrible disaster, with every slight against humanity, we are each given the opportunity to act, to do some good in the world, to offer an act of kindness in the face of evil or mayhem or crime.
We see grand acts performed by people who search for missing planes, who feed the hungry in far off land, who pull babies from the rubble of earthquakes. And yet, in our own small arenas, we are reluctant to give a helping hand and forgive those who have trespassed against us.
If it's good enough for Father Joe that we forgive him, maybe it's good enough for many of the other inmates.
Just a single act of kindness when they get out. As we would afford one to Father Joe.
A job. A meal. A ride. Some clothes. A bed.
Whatever landed them in jail might have been their first offence, something stupid, but that action will brand them forever in the eyes of our community.
Let us remember as we forgive Father Joe.
It was his first offence, too.


  1. I would agree with your observation about this man, though I don't know him. I admire your regard for his parish community. While not reading the recommended article that advocated for the efficacy of his sentence, the post here you wrote suggests you have a sympathetic ear.


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