A former small claims court deputy judge pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing a quarter of a million dollars from the Catholic church, admitting he used the money pilfered from the St. Patrick’s Church cemetery to pay his own personal bills.
Ottawa lawyer Ronald Houlahan was the chair of the St. Patrick’s Church
Fallowfield cemetery committee when he wrote cheques from the cemetery
account to pay off his own expenses, such as bills for his law office
phone, secretarial services, insurance, cellular phone, cable TV and
personal credit cards, an Ottawa court heard.
In addition to the bill payments, assistant Crown attorney John Semenoff
said some of the sales of burial plots and internment rights were
deposited directly into the personal accounts of the 76-year-old
“Of the 269 contracts for sale of plots and internment rights, 50
payments did not go through the cemetery account and cannot be accounted
for,” said Semenoff, adding that the missing sales added up to $72,721.
The theft occurred over an eight-year period beginning in 2003, when
Houlahan took over duties as the chair of the cemetery committee. The
veteran lawyer had previously volunteered as the chair of the pastoral
council for the parish, court heard.
His duties as chair included managing the cemetery’s finances, including
depositing money into a perpetual care and maintenance fund that would
provide for the continued maintenance of the cemetery following the
purchase of a plot and burial. A percentage of each sale was supposed to
go into the fund, but Houlahan never once made a payment, leaving the
account short $173,695, Semenoff said.
Houlahan also neglected to file tax returns or financial reports as he
was legally required to do during his time as the chair of the cemetery
committee, court heard.
The wheels came off the scheme in the summer of 2011, when Benoit
Bariteau, the director of cemeteries for the archdiocese, contacted
Houlahan about the deficiencies. Houlahan assured Bariteau everything
was in order, despite the lack of financial reports. Bariteau persisted
however, and asked parish priest Stephen Amesse to track down the
records. Houlahan eventually provided the records in August 2011, and
was removed from his duties.
Before handing the records over, Houlahan deposited a cheque for
$3,435.11 — the exact amount he had paid to his own personal credit card
to cover the purchase of a device used to lower coffins into a grave
that was being used by a cemetery services company that Houlahan was
running with his son. (The actual cost of the lowering device was
$3,015.67, although Houlahan wrote a cheque from the cemetery account
that covered the exact amount of the outstanding balance on his credit
card, court heard.)
A subsequent audit conducted for the archdiocese revealed approximately
$365,000 couldn’t be accounted for; however, the Crown said they were
giving Houlahan the “benefit of the doubt” regarding the payment of
honorariums and other monies that they couldn’t prove beyond a
reasonable doubt were stolen.
Court heard that after the audit commenced, Houlahan produced invoices
that he said showed he was owed $260,000 for services he provided.
“It would appear that Mr. Houlahan produced these invoices in an attempt
to account for some of the missing money,” Semenoff said.
Houlahan also told the auditors he had done pro bono legal work on behalf of the cemetery, Semenoff said.
The Crown and defence agreed that $250,000 was taken by Houlahan,
although the two sides agreed that a restitution order would only cover
the $173,695 that was still outstanding from the maintenance fund.
Houlahan’s lawyer, Pat McCann, said his client intended to immediately
pay back $70,000 of that amount when he was sentenced, and accepted that
the court would order he pay back the rest of what was left over. A
sentencing hearing has been scheduled for April 21.
The Law Society of Upper Canada suspended Houlahan’s licence to practise
law following a hearing last Friday, but the suspension isn’t scheduled
to take effect until Jan. 27.
The law society had been seeking to suspend the licence after learning
that Houlahan was criminally charged more than two years ago but never
reported it to the law society.
Houlahan and two other members of the cemetery committee who were never
criminally charged had also been sued by the archdiocese in 2014,
although that lawsuit is no longer active.