CHICAGO — Former Chicago Ald. Edward Vrdolyak had just caught a big break. After pleading guilty in a federal corruption case and facing the prospect of prison time, Vrdolyak listened as the judge in his case let him off with probation.

Afterward, Vrdolyak told reporters: “God is great.”

Vrdolyak, a long-ago Catholic seminarian, had reason to think so. In the fall of 2008, he had pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with a real estate scheme with Stuart Levine, the politically well-connected businessman. Within weeks, several prominent religious figures—including the Rev. George Clements, Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church and Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago—had written letters (see below) to the judge, urging him to show compassion, even leniency, for Vrdolyak, a review of the letters filed with the court shows.

U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur appeared to be moved. He noted that there had been an outpouring of letters on Vrdolyak’s behalf as he rejected prosecutors’ call for a 3½-year prison term, instead sentencing him last year to five years of probation, a $50,000 fine and 2,500 hours of community service.

Though Vrdolyak famously feuded as a City Council leader with then-Mayor Harold Washington, Clements portrayed him in his letter as a man who had tried to ease racial tensions in Chicago, writing: “I was deeply impressed with his sincerity, honesty & integrity.”

Trotter called him a “problem solver” and a mentor for his predominantly black South Side congregation and wrote: “Over the years, Ed Vrdolyak has shown himself to be a generous, giving and helpful man.”

McCaughey noted that she knew a Vrdolyak son and granddaughter through their mutual connection to Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights and urged the judge to give great weight to the former alderman’s admission of guilt: “Please let Ed Vrdolyak’s admission mean something in a world of denial.”

As things turned out, Vrdolyak might need to redouble his prayers. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court threw out his sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing before a different judge. That’s set to be heard by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly in October. Vrdolyak’s lawyers have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to restore Shadur’s sentence.

Vrdolyak is hardly the only politician-gone-wrong to turn to religious leaders for a character reference in court.

Another recent example: now-former Niles Mayor Nicholas Blase, who pleaded guilty after federal prosecutors charged him in a kickback scheme.

In a letter on his behalf to U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen, Sister Carole Le Claire recounted how Blase had once helped out with her request to get a tree removed, doing so “happily for a private citizen whom he has never met.”

The Rev. Thomas May, pastor of St. John Brebeuf Church in the near north suburb, also wrote glowingly of Blase: “Although of the Greek Orthodox faith, Nick Blase has attended services here … many times. I have always found him to be a very respectful and spiritual man.”

Last January, Blase was sentenced to a year and a day in prison — after two priests spoke up for him at his sentencing hearing.

University of Notre Dame Professor Richard Garnett specializes in religion, politics and the law. He says it’s fairly commonplace for religious leaders to “vouch for” defendants and “share their opinions” about them through letters or testimony. It’s a matter of perspective, according to Garnett, who says judges need to get a “full picture” of defendants before sentencing them, and that priests, ministers, rabbis and imams often can help provide that.

So how do forgiveness and redemption — big components in the Judeo-Christian tradition — fit in with the legal concept of justice?

“That’s a huge question,” says Garnett. But “secular criminal law tries to strike a balance between on one hand imposing just deserts … while on the other hand leaving open the possibility of rehabilitation and restoration to the community.

“That’s something we wrestle with in our law. It’s not just a religious question.”