Police have launched an investigation into a Chaldean Catholic priest from London, Ont., after church officials reported more than $500,000 slated for the Diocese of Hamilton refugee sponsorship program was lost to gambling.
Father Amer Saka, a priest working at the St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in London, is under investigation after telling his bishop, Emanuel Shaleta, that funds intended to help new Canadians had instead vanished in vice, Shaleta said.
"He called me on the phone and . . . said he lost all the money. I said, 'How?' He said, 'Gambling,'" Shaleta said on Saturday, referring to a conversation he said took place Feb. 23.
"We believe that Father Saka has a serious gambling problem and that these funds may have been used for that purpose," he said. "Since there is an investigation going on, we cannot confirm what he's saying."
Shaleta, who sits at the head of Canada's first and only Chaldean eparchy, or jurisdiction, said he suspended the priest immediately after learning of the missing money.
The bishop drove to London the next day to take Saka for several days of voluntary treatment at Southdown Institute, a non-profit facility north of Toronto for priests battling problems ranging from addiction to depression to sexually abusive behaviour.
London police confirmed they received a complaint Feb. 24 of alleged financial misappropriation related to the local parish.
"An investigation is underway," said spokesperson Const. Sandasha Bough on March 15. The financial crimes probe was launched more than a week after the initial report, said police, who needed bank records before going further.
No charges have been laid. The allegations have not been proven in court.
The Toronto Star reached out to Saka through calls and letters to his church in London. A St. Joseph church representative said it is treating the situation "very seriously" but that comment would be "inappropriate" given an ongoing internal investigation.
The Chaldean Catholic Church is based in Baghdad and represents Catholics from Iraq and neighbouring countries, but ultimately falls under the watch of the Holy See in the Vatican.
The Toronto-based Chaldean eparchy is one of the Chaldean Catholic Church's newest, founded with Pope Benedict XVI's blessing less than five years ago as Iraqi immigrants continued to arrive in Canada. It encompasses several churches in Ontario, including St. Joseph.
Monsignor Murray Kroetsch, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, which runs the sponsorship program, said Saka was the leader of a constituent group raising funds to sponsor refugees from Iraq.
It's one of about 30 parishes and parties to partner with the Hamilton diocese in the sponsorship agreement.
Kroetsch said the Hamilton diocese filed up to 20 applications sponsored by Saka for refugees from Iraq. About 10 of them have arrived in southern Ontario. With all now facing a potential void of financial backing, the Hamilton diocese has taken over responsibility for their support, Kroetsch said.
"We want to assure the refugees that our part of our agreement is looked after and that money will be provided to help them feel secure and help them find their footing in the country," he said.
Holders of sponsorship agreements, signed with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, must support refugees for at least the first year after their arrival.
"They're somewhat vulnerable, and now they may be even more fearful . . . We need to assure them that we're not just going to abandon them," Kroetsch said.
Sponsorships cost about $6,000 a person, or about $20,000 to $25,000 for a family of four, said Shaleta.
"It is wrong for a priest to go and gamble. It's against the rules," said Shaleta.
The bishop said he informed parishioners — mostly northern Iraqi immigrants, many from communities now overrun by ISIL who are trying to bring family members to Canada — soon after the priest told Shaleta about the missing funds.