Ontario Priest Gambles $1 Million in Refugee Funds, Sentenced to Prison

  • Former Catholic priest Amer Saka has been sentenced to two years in a minimum-security prison
  • The funds he gambled were intended to help refugees coming into Canada from Iraq and Syria
  • The fraud took place from 2013 until 2016, when he finally confessed to his bishop
  • Saka will have 15 years to fully pay restitution to the victims or face another 3-5 years in prison
priest in handcuffs
An Ontario priest was convicted of fraud and sentenced to two years in prison after stealing almost CAD1m worth of donations to fund his crippling gambling addiction. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Two years’ imprisonment

A former Catholic priest has pleaded guilty to defrauding refugees and their families after he gambled away almost CAD1m (US$760m) in donations.

Amer Saka was sentenced to two years in prison on a single count of committing fraud of over CAD5,000 (US$3,817). Justice Allan Maclure recommended that the former priest serve this sentence at a minimum-security facility. 

he gambled away almost CAD1m (US$760m) in donations

Saka’s attorney, Iryna Revutsky, thanked the judge for allowing the defendant to serve time at this facility, adding: “He [Justice Maclure] gave a very thoughtful judgment, he took into consideration the fact that my client was fundamentally and is fundamentally a very, very good man who made a mistake.”

The details of the fraud

Saka was serving as a priest at St Joseph’s Chaldean Catholic Church in London, Ontario, and the St Oraha Catholic Church in Kitchener at the time of the offense. 

The priest gambled a total of CAD936,497 (US$715,000), which sum was meant to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving in the country. The parishioners had donated these funds to sponsor family members of fellow parishioners who were trying to get into Canada. 

sum was meant to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving in the country

The fraud took place from 2013 until 2016. Throughout this period, the sponsorship applications that were accompanied by donations were either not completed or lost. 

Spiraling addiction to gambling

Saka’s lawyer claimed that his client’s “pathological gambling addiction” stems from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition was not diagnosed after the priest’s brother and mother were murdered during the time he was living in Iraq. 

In 2011, the priest voluntarily self-excluded from gambling at the casinos in Ontario. He later rescinded this self-exclusion and began gambling once more. Saka had a reputation for gambling large sums at casinos in Niagara Falls, Windsor, and Point Edward.

Following extensive losses, Saka confessed his crimes to his bishop, who reported him to the police in London, Ontario. The priest later attended a treatment program for PTSD and gambling addiction. 

The aftermath of the trial

Saka has apologized for his actions in a letter to the court. He said he fears this issue could mean he will no longer be able to practice the priesthood.

In total, there were 36 families with 105 members that fell victim to the actions of the priest. Some never made it to Canada and their whereabouts are not known. 

The initial proposal from Justice Maclure was a 45-year period in which the priest would have to pay restitution to the affected families. The lengthy time frame was due to his uncertain employment prospects and his priest’s salary of just CAD20,000 (US$15,270) annually. The proposal would have meant that Saka would only have to report to the court if he’d paid back the funds at 106 years old. The recommendation was disputed, with the Crown prosecutors arguing that the indicated length of time was unreasonable. This led to Justice Maclure dropping the restitution term to 15 years.

If Saka has not fully paid what he owes to the victims within the stipulated period, he will need to serve additional time in jail of between three and five years.