Thursday, January 26, 2017

Lawyer admits stealing from Catholic church; pleads guilty to theft from St. Patrick's cemetery

Ottawa courthouseA 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 Houlahan.

“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.

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