Up to eight London families, and more across southern Ontario, are reportedly out of pocket and the priest they trusted is under investigation after hundreds of thousands of dollars went missing.
The priest, Father Amer Saka of St. Joseph’s Chaldean Catholic Church in London, is suspended and being investigated by police, with his bishop saying Saka told him he gambled away more than $500,000 given to him by families who thought he was holding it for refugee relatives under a private sponsorship program.
Seven or eight London families from the small church in the city are among those who trusted Saka to deposit thousands of dollars into a trust fund to be used once the refugees arrived in Canada, said Bishop Emmanuel Shaleta, head of the Toronto-based Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Canada.
“They deposited it for their loved ones. He was supposed to return it when their relative came.” Shaleta said Monday.
“They did not give this money as a donation for their church. Those people are upset now that money is not there anymore. There are people affected, not only in London, but Toronto, Windsor and Kitchener,” where the priest also worked, he said.
“They trusted him, this money was not for him. It was to be given back to the refugees.”
Instead, the government “has stopped all processing” of refugees wanting to come to London on private sponsorships facilitated by Saka, said one member of the London congregation.
“People are sad. There are people who are working all their life to bring their family here,” said the man, who did not want to be named.
“Some people had no money. They borrowed thousands just to get their family from Syria,” he said, adding many in the congregation have relatives in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.
The man said estimates of $500,000 are low and he’d heard more than $800,000 had vanished. He said he knows of one family alone who gave more than $70,000 to the priest for loved ones still overseas.
“Everybody’s talking about it.”
Saka, who was also an administrator of the Mar Ouraha parish in Kitchener, could not be reached by phone or in person for comment Monday.
Shaleta, head of Canada’s Mar Addai Chaldean Eparchy, an Eastern Rite church that represents Catholics from Iraq and surrounding countries ,and which is overseen by the Vatican, said the problem came to light more than a month ago, when he learned the priest was participating in the federal government’s refugee-sponsorship program through the Hamilton Roman Catholic Diocese.
Saka is not a priest for either the Diocese of London or the Diocese of Hamilton.
With police tight-lipped, key questions about the case remain, including:
--Whether money was actually deposited with any church for refugee sponsorship purposes.
--Whether oversight procedures, typically tight involving private refugee sponsorships, were lacking.
--Why someone from one Catholic organization would go to another to help with private refugee sponsorships. A spokesperson for the Hamilton diocese has suggested that might be because Hamilton has a large Chaldean community and because Saka’s Kitchener mission parish is located within the diocese.
Saka had been parish priest at St. Joseph’s for about eight years, the parishioner told The Free Press. He called him a good priest who liked to do things with his flock, including play soccer with the men.
London police confirmed they’re investigating after church officials reported more than $500,000 went missing.
“I can confirm that there is a fraud investigation after we received a complaint from the Catholic church,” said London police Const. Melissa Duncan. “The investigation is ongoing. As with any fraud investigation, it can take some time because there are various components to the investigation.”
Saka’s London parish has a congregation of about 100 families, said Shaleta. They’re among about 38,000 Chaldean Catholics across the country.
Shaleta said he hadn’t known the London priest was taking part in the program to sponsor Iraqi refugees.
“I did not know that. I said to him, ‘I know this program deposits money (for refugees), where did you deposit it?’” said Shaleta.
“I cornered him. I said, ‘I need to know where is this,’” he said. “He confessed.”
The priest told him he’d been gambling, said Shaleta.
“Right away, I removed him from the parish.”
Shaleta said he contacted police, took Saka to Southdown Institute in Holland Landing, Ont., for priests with addiction and mental health issues, took over the congregation for two weeks and has since sent a priest there.
“The congregation has nothing to do with this. They are not involved with this,” he said.
Fewer than 100 people normally attend the tiny Charles Street church in London, but the day the bishop arrived to explain things there were as many as 300, said the parishioner.
Under the federal government’s private sponsorship program, people who want to sponsor refugees must raise money to support the newcomers as they get settled.
About $12,000 must be raised to sponsor one refugee, and $27,000 to sponsor a family.
Faith-based organizations often partner with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to help with the process by holding the money, making the application and essentially vouching for the sponsors. The money is used for rent and expenses during the first year after newcomers arrive.
“The diocese says ‘this is a parishioner, we know them, we trust them,’” explained Shaleta.
He said he doesn’t know what’s happening in the cases of the sponsorships that were being held by the London priest, but the bishop said he’s working to ensure the refugees make it to Canada.
“I will do my best to process those files,” he said. “Of course, as a church we will help as much as we can."
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Chaldean Catholic priest in London, Ontario reportedly gambles away money intended for sponsorship of refugees
As reported by Jennifer O'Brien of the London Free Press, March 29, 2016: