The sponsorship program was not a part of the church and a Catholic official says he wasn't aware of the missing money until it was too late.
A priest from London, Ontario, is being investigated for allegedly gambling away $500,000 [$380,000 USD] in donations for refugees.
Father Amer Saka, a former priest of St. Joseph's Chaldean Catholic Church, is allegedly under investigation by London police after he told his bishop he had spent half a million dollars in money meant for refugee families who were part of a private sponsorship program.
Reverend Emanuel Shaleta, who became head of Canada's Chaldean eparchy last year, told VICE that Saka confessed to him over a phone call in February that he no longer had the money. That call happened after a woman who was involved with the sponsorship program asked Shaleta about it. Confused, Shaleta pressed Saka and found out he had been secretly accepting funds for refugee families for approximately three years.
"He was supposed to let me know as a new bishop [that he was personally collecting money]. He did not tell me. I asked him, 'Are you participating in the program?' He said, 'No.' I told him I need to know everything," Shaleta told VICE.
"He told me he gambled the money away, but I don't know if that's true. How can I believe him?"
The money that Saka allegedly lost was intended for both refugee families that have already arrived in Canada and those yet to come. Through the program, average sponsorship costs about $6,000 [$4,500 USD] a person or $20,000 [$15,000 USD] for a family of four. It's unclear exactly where the refugees Saka was involved with were coming from, but Shaleta said Saka dealt mainly with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
The sponsorship program is based out of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton. The diocese was unable to respond to VICE for immediate comment. While both are Catholic churches, the two institutions are separate. The Chaldean Church is a sect of the Vatican's network that represents people of Iraq and the Middle East, and Shaleta said the sponsorship program is not a part of the Chaldean Church's structure.
"This is not donation money. This has nothing to do with the church," he said. "It was deposited money for [refugees] from their relatives. He was supposed to give this money to [the refugees] when they arrived in Canada."
Shaleta said he acted "immediately" after finding out, putting Saka on indefinite sabbatical and sending him for help at Southdown Institute––a nonprofit center in Toronto that deals with the rehabilitation of priests and church officials for issues ranging from mental health to addiction. As of now, Shaleta said Saka is at an undisclosed monastery and plans to return to Southdown at a later point.
Shaleta told VICE that despite Saka's admission, he's skeptical that the money was actually gambled and is holding his conclusion until the police finish their investigation.
The London Police Service told VICE that an investigation into the situation is ongoing and that no specifics of the case could be confirmed.
With files from Tamara Khandaker.
Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.