‘Ottawa’ House Arrest for former Small Claims Ottawa Judge Who Stole from Catholic Church
A former small claims court judge who pocketed a quarter of a million dollars from the cemetery funds of his Catholic church will spend the next year under house arrest.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Lynn Ratushny said it was only Ronald Houlahan’s decades of good deeds as a respected lawyer, judge, volunteer and family man that spared him from time behind bars for the theft of $250,000 from the St. Patrick’s Fallowfield parish, where he was chair of the cemetery committee for eight years.
Houlahan’s work within the church and in Ottawa’s legal community “placed you in a position of grace. You were trusted to do the right thing and be scrupulously careful. You were not,” said Ratushny before sentencing Houlahan Friday.
“For the majority of your life, Mr. Houlahan, you have been a good person, a dedicated family man, a hard worker, a generous volunteer who allowed himself to forget that the cemetery funds were not his to handle as he wished,” Ratushny told the 76-year-old. “It’s undeniable that you should have known better.”
Houlahan’s lawyer Patrick McCann said his client and his wife didn’t lead a lavish lifestyle with the money Houlahan took; it instead was “frittered away” propping up his struggling legal practice, McCann said. Court previously heard that Houlahan spent the money 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.
McCann said – and the judge accepted – that Houlahan always intended to straighten out the bank accounts and pay the money back, although it never happened. According to McCann, his client simply became overwhelmed by all his obligations.
McCann said Houlahan has already provided him with $70,000; there is a restitution order for another $103,695, representing the amount that would have been collected for the maintenance of the purchased cemetery plots.
Assistant Crown attorney John Semenoff said a breach of trust such as Houlahan’s usually demands jail time. Semenoff suggested a jail sentence of 12 to 15 months would be appropriate, but acknowledged Houlahan’s lifetime of good work could be recognized as the extraordinary circumstances necessary to justify a conditional sentence that could be served in the community.
A contrite Houlahan apologized in court to his fellow parishioners, the priest who appointed him to the position, the other members of the cemetery committee, his family and to other lawyers and judges for the shame and embarrassment he has caused.
Houlahan, who has been a lawyer for 49 years, has since had his licence to practise law suspended. It’s unlikely he’ll ever get it back, McCann said.
Ratushny gave Houlahan a conditional sentence of two years less a day, with conditions he spend the first year under house arrest. During the second 12 months, Houlahan must complete 150 hours of community service. Once the conditional sentence is completed, Houlahan will remain on probation for another year.