A Catholic priest in London, Ontario is being investigated by police because he may have gambled away half a million dollars meant to help refugees, according to his bishop.
In early March, local media reported that Father Amer Saka at the St. Joseph Chaldean Church, had been suspended amid allegations that he misappropriated funds — the Toronto Star now says the total amount lost is $500,000.
Saka had been collecting deposits for three years from members of his parish, as well as non-members, who wanted to bring their relatives over from Iraq as refugees, Bishop Emanuel Shaleta told VICE News. The Chaldean church, based in Baghdad, represents Catholics from Iraq and the surrounding region.
"People deposited this money and trusted him because he is a priest," said Shaleta, head of Canada's Mar Addai Chaldean Eparchy, which is overseen by the Vatican. "Many didn't even take a receipt."
"But whatever he tells me, I can't believe it. Until the investigation is concluded, nothing is for sure."
Saka had been leading one of about 30 groups working with the Diocese of Hamilton, which holds a private sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government to bring over refugees from Iraq.
Churches and faith groups are huge parts of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's aggressive resettlement effort for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Private sponsorship programs are cheaper for the federal government.
Shaleta, who Saka reported to, said he only became aware of the priest's involvement with the sponsorship program when a woman came to his office and mentioned that she was about to deposit money with Saka to help her family.
Shaleta, who was surprised that Saka had never disclosed his work with the program, warned the woman not to give the priest any more money until he knew more. Then, for three weeks to no avail, Shaleta pressed Saka for details on what he was doing with the money.
Eventually, Shaleta told VICE News in an interview, "he called me, crying, saying he had a problem and that he took money from those people, and that he didn't have it anymore," adding that Saka mentioned losing the funds through gambling.
"But whatever he tells me, I can't believe it," said the bishop. "Until the investigation is concluded, nothing is for sure."
Shaleta said he immediately removed Saka from the parish and brought him to Southdown Institute, an East Gwillimbury, Ontario facility for clergy with addiction and mental health issues. Saka stayed at Southdown for a week and is currently at the Mary Lake Monastery in King City. He could not be reached for comment.
Shaleta said Saka did return deposits to some refugees who had already arrived in Canada, but no longer had money that was meant for future arrivals.
The London Police Service confirmed to VICE News that they are investigating an alleged fraud as a result of a complaint that came from the Diocese of Hamilton at the end of February.
"Unfortunately, there's not too much more I can say due to the fact that it's an ongoing investigation," said Const. Melissa Duncan, adding that no charges have been laid, and that police may have to obtain search warrants and compile bank records.
The Hamilton diocese has filed up to 20 applications sponsored by Saka, chancellor Monsignor Murray Kroetsch told the Star. About ten of these people are already living in Southern Ontario, he said, adding that the diocese will assume responsibility for any impact the refugees might feel as a result of the loss.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk