Church administrator accused of embezzling $400, 000 in Canada
A longtime parishioner says she’s ready to forgive after hundreds of thousands of dollars were allegedly stolen from the St. Bernadette Parish in Windsor Park.
A former church administrator is accused of stealing $400,000 from the Roman Catholic church on Cottonwood Road.
Leo McCaughan, 39, is charged with theft, fraud and falsification of documents dating back to March 2009. None of the allegations has been proven and he is presumed innocent.
Denise Novog, a parishioner at St. Bernadette for 40 years, said she never suspected anything of McCaughan and will forgive him if he is convicted.
"It’s easier to forgive if it wasn’t your money," she said with a laugh. "But you’ll have to do it.
"My dealings with him is that he was very nice and he tried to help me with whatever I was doing," she said Wednesday.
"It’s kind of disappointing. We just have to keep on fundraising. Embezzlement is wrong, certainly. It happens and we just have to go on."
Audit uncovered problems
McCaughan, of Winnipeg, was an administrator at St. Bernadette for about a decade before an audit uncovered problems.
Police allege that, over a nearly five-year period ending in December 2014, McCaughan exploited his position by embezzling and withdrawing over $400,000. He then covered up his actions by entering false information into the general ledger, police added in the release.
The inconsistencies were detected during a routine audit done by the Archdiocese of St. Boniface that began in late May 2015. The church called in the police commercial crime unit in July.
McCaughan worked at the church for about 10 years and left of his own accord in January 2015, prior to the church audit. He is single and didn’t have any children — a fact that meant some who knew him didn’t think twice about his spending, an acquaintance told the Free Press.
Parisioners 'feel betrayed'
The police had already been informed of the fraud allegations by the time St. Bernadette parish pastor Fr. Phil Daley was appointed to the church in August 2015.
Daley said he has never met McCaughan.
The priest said he believed the funds were stolen through fraudulent cheques, cash donations being pocketed and "creative bookkeeping."
Daley said he’s going to help his parishioners — about 1,500 to 2,000 families — heal from the news their donations and Sunday collection money was allegedly stolen for years and used to pay for a "lavish" lifestyle.
"It’s a place where a lot of people come together and they think they’re doing good, they know they’re doing good. So to have somebody betray that, I think that’s really where the biggest impact of victimization for the parishioners is going to be. They’re going to feel betrayed by this, and we’ll have to get over that."
The church was bleeding money even though the community was "trying desperately" to raise money for necessary renovations to the aging building, Daley said.
He said the church was in need of maintenance when he arrived: lights were burnt out and paint was peeling.
"They were having trouble making ends meet, even just from the point of view of maintaining the parish and they were talking about ways to cut. They were constantly cutting and still not making it," Daley said.
A new bookkeeper took over after McCaughan left and the church now has more oversight in place to make sure one person doesn’t have authority over all the money-handling, Daley said, and there are plans to seek restitution for the stolen funds.
McCaughan worked for many years with the previous pastor, Fr. Fred Olds, who left St. Bernadette last summer after 20 years. He’s now a pastor at St. Timothy Parish in St. Vital, but could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
'Devastating' news: usher
Don Buccini has been an usher with the church since 1968 and described the news as "devastating" for the church.
He acknowledged that McCaughan was no longer a member of the congregation, but said most of the regular church members were just finding out why he left the organization.
"I think a lot of this was hush-hush," Buccini said Wednesday, adding it was most likely for privacy reasons. "I know there is going to be a lot of comments."
As a longstanding member of the church and usher, Buccini said he was informed of the allegations about six months ago when the archdiocese conducted the audit.
"I did not know anything about what was happening and I knew Leo very well," he said. "It was very surprising."
Buccini described McCaughan as a friendly thrill-seeker who used to race cars at Red River Co-op Speedway and was a frequent face at the church.
"He (McCaughan) has been there for a long time and I have done business with him for a long time," he said. "But it is only one person and sometimes you have to take a backseat and see what transpires."
'Major setback' for St. Bernadette: archdiocese
In a written statement, the Archdiocese of St. Boniface said since the discovery of the missing funds, it has issued an audit report outlining recommendations to establish internal controls. The archdiocese said it is working closely with the church’s new pastor and the parish finance committee to implement safeguards to ensure parish assets are protected. The archdiocese has been conducting routine audits of all parishes during the last two years.
"The Archdiocese of Saint Boniface is deeply saddened for the parishioners of St. Bernadette. People have donated funds to the parish in good faith," said the statement. "This is a major setback for the people of St. Bernadette. However, the archdiocese, the new pastor, the deacon and the staff are committed to working together to heal the parish’s wounds."
Winnipeg Police Service spokesman Const. Jason Michalyshen said the case is "incredibly concerning."
"Whether we’re talking about $1,000 or $400,000 is essentially irrelevant," Michalyshen said.
"If an individual is in a position of trust such as this, any group or organization has those high standards or the expectation that they’re going to conduct themselves professionally and ethically.
"But unfortunately, from time to time, individuals will take advantage of their positions."
Michalyshen said co-operation from the church and archdiocese moved the investigation forward.
"This is serious. This is a significant amount of money and it’s important that these funds, that essentially come from the public, that this be made public," Michalyshen said.