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Father Joe LeClair sentenced to one year in jail

When Father Joe LeClair is released from prison he'll have the full support of his parishioners, the same men and women who've stood by him as he pleaded guilty to stealing 130-thousand dollars from them.

LeClair was sentenced Wednesday to one year in prison and a year of probation for fraud and theft over $5,000, charges to which he pleaded guilty in January, 2014.

In an agreed statement of facts LeClair admitted to taking $130,000 from parish funds and collection plate offerings between 2005 and 2011 to fuel a gambling addiction.

An audit of more than $1M deposited into LeClair's personal bank account found there was no explanation for $400,000 of the money. The other $700,000 was accounted for.

After entering his guilty plea in January LeClair apologized to parishioners and vowed to spend his life making amends.

A psychiatric evaluation found he was suffering from alcoholism and was a pathological gambler who suffered from depression and anxiety that worsened as his debts increased.

Still, Ontario Court Justice Jack Nadelle, ruled a conditional sentence wouldn't be enough to deter LeClair and others from committing fraud. He called it "a very serious offence" that was made worse by LeClair's breach of his parishioners' trust.

"I think the part that hurts us the most as parishioners, I'm talking as a parishioner now, is when Father Joe got up on the pulpit and said that he had never taken any money out of the collection or any money out of the parish for his gambling, drinking, whatever you want to call it, that's the part that really hurt the most and you could tell by the judge this morning that he was really going to note that part also, you know, that you got in the pulpit and you lied to the people," said Conrad Rock, a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament Church in the Glebe.

He was among many parishioners who said they were not surprised by the sentence, agreeing that there should be repercussions for actions that are against the law, but they still have found forgiveness for the man they say has done more good than bad.

"Crimes were committed, had he not gone to jail what would the lesson be? 'I can take money from my mom's purse, my dad's wallet, and it's okay because a priest did it,' you know? Justice had to be served. I'm sorry for him and I'll pray for him every day," said Ellen Vannesta, a long-time friend of LeClair's.

She's one of dozens of supporters vowing to support LeClair as he overcomes addiction and works to make amends for what he did.

Still there are many parishioners who thought the sentence too harsh considering the good that LeClair has done in all other aspects of his life.

"I don't see what this is going to benefit," said Joanne Licari, who said LeClair should have been ordered to serve his time in the community under a conditional sentence.

"Help him do good and start to rebuild again and help people again and bring that back as opposed to putting him behind bars where he's sitting in a jail cell. He's already thought about what he's done, he's been remorseful, he's making steps to recover and recuperate," she said.

Webber, LeClair's defence lawyer, said it's highly likely his client will be eligible for early parole and may be able to do some good while he's in prison.

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