Faith

Miss. Parishioners Weep in the Pews After Learning HIV-Positive Pastor Bilked Them Out of Over $33,000

Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Jackson, Miss., Catholic Diocese, center, presides at a vigil for the deceased Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, Miss., Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Shocked and scandalized Catholics in a Mississippi parish were literally crying in the pews after learning that their pastor scammed them out of over $33,000 for supposed “cancer” treatments. In reality, Father Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Starkville, Miss., until his removal last month, is an HIV-positive apparent sex addict who used the fake cancer claims to solicit funds for HIV treatment and personal expenses, according to a 37-page affidavit filed on Nov. 9 by Department of Homeland Security Special Agent William G. Childers in U.S. District Court in Jackson.

One of those personal expenses was “a recurring expense at a dating website that caters to people who are HIV-positive,” the affidavit contends. Pastor Vargas also allegedly bilked his parishioners out  of funds that were supposed to go to an orphanage and chapel in Mexico.  No funds ever made it to the orphanage or chapel, according to the affidavit.

Additionally, the priest raised $9,210 through a GoFundMe campaign that he set up to help with his medical expenses, bringing his fraudulent haul to over $42,000. GoFundMe is returning the money Vargus collected in the scam.

To add insult to injury, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson seems to be punishing one of the whistleblowers in the case — the associate pastor at St. Joseph — by reassigning him to another parish.

The diocese posted on its website that federal agents served search and seizure warrants on the chancery office and on St. Joseph Parish on Nov. 7.   Federal agents believe that the scam was covered up by church leaders in Jackson, as the the diocese was made aware of the falsehood way back in 2015, according to the affidavit. Many Catholics in the area are thinking the same thing as a result of the actions of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson both before and after news of the scandal broke.

Via the Starkville Daily News:

Agents claim that in late 2014, Vargas went to OCH Regional Medical Center in Starkville for “breathing trouble” and stayed in the hospital a couple of days.

After being discharged, a confidential informant claims Vargas informed them over dinner that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer: Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, which is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Vargas then told the informant that the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, which governs the St. Joseph Parrish, was sending him to Canada for specialized treatment that was not available stateside.

Actually, Vargas was sent in April 2015 to the Toronto-based Southdown Institute, which treats priests with mental health issues and addictions (including sexual addictions).

Agents then accused Vargas of even grooming “target parishioners” before asking for donations. Court documents allege he would take the target out to lunch or dinner and always paid for the meal, which were ultimately paid for by the parish.

After ingratiating himself, agents say he would then give the parishioner the opportunity to donate to his cause.

One informant claimed they gave a $5,000 check to St. Joseph Parish and Vargas called them to ask if the money could be used for the orphanage, to which the informant agreed.

In another instance, one parishioner allegedly wrote a check for chapel in Mexico for $20,000 and another on the same day (June 13, 2018) for $400. The parishioner had to withdraw $21,000 from their retirement account to cover the checks.

Via the Clarion Ledger:

A previously issued statement from the diocese said that it was barred then and is barred now by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act from discussing Vargas’ medical condition, including when it first learned of it and “throughout the time period mentioned in the affidavit.”

In addition to soliciting money for treatment, Vargas also solicited money for an orphanage in Morelia, Mexico, as well as a chapel. According to the affidavit, no money went to either a Mexican orphanage or chapel. It noted, however, that Vargas had a friend who owned a bar in Moreila, called Heaven and Hell, whom he spoke with daily and attended the bar’s grand opening in 2018.

Four “confidential informants” are listed in the affidavit, including the Rev. Rusty Vincent, Vargas’ associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish, and the Rev. John Bohn, a former St. Joe pastor who is now pastor of St. Richard Catholic Church in Jackson, MS. The other two informants have not yet been identified.

Fr. Vincent reportedly went to Bishop Joseph Kopacz with his concerns about Vargas last year.

To the great dismay of St. Joe parishioners, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson thanked the whistle-blowing priest by announcing that they’re moving him to a Vicksburg parish in January.

Kopacz hosted three listening sessions at St. Joe and one at Corpus Christi in Macon, where Vargas was also a pastor. Many of the sessions were contentious, according to audio recordings provided to the Clarion Ledger.

Parishioner Garett LaFleur told the Clarion Ledger“Kopacz’s decision to reassign Father Rusty in the coming weeks only illustrates his lack of understanding or care with regard to the needs of our parish. One of the few things that is providing my family with hope at this time is knowing that three of the confidential informants were priests. The assurance that there are still members of the clergy who are willing to stand up for and protect their parishioners when our bishop is not, is worth fighting for. In Father Rusty our parish has a priest with our best interest at heart and someone willing to protect us from deceit and coverups.”

In attempting to address parishioners concerns, Kopacz said at the sessions that he was there to listen and be pastoral. However, at one session at St. Joe, he said the church bookkeeper should have questioned Vargas.

Parishioner Michael Nadorff said he took that as “victim blaming.”

Another parishioner, Katie Buys, told the Ledger “she frequently sees parishioners crying during Mass.” The church, she added, is “in a state of mourning.”

According to the Ledger, Kopacz told parishioners during one of the listening sessions that he sent Vargas to treatment in Canada and then encouraged the sick priest to tell parishioners he had deceived them.

“It’s asinine that (Kopacz) would think that (Vargas) would lie to us and collect money and come back and inform us of that without further hand holding or support,” Katie Buys said. “Kopacz had an opportunity to help him but instead he chose to enable him in the area where he was struggling or sinning.”

She added, “I think our generation of Catholic, we don’t want these cover-ups anymore. We want the truth.”

Her husband, David Buys, said: “This bishop is taking away the priest, yanking him out at a very difficult time, leaving them to wonder, I can’t speak for them but leaving them to wonder, ‘Can I really trust this church and our faith?'”

 He continued: “We need somebody with some history with us who can help us rebuild, at least in this phase of acute pain and grief and morning that we’re all experiencing.”

“This is no way a rejection of Father Jason, David Buys added. “This is not a usual period of transition to a new priest. Really it’s more of an opportunity to mourn and grieve and figure out these feelings that we’re feeling with Father Rusty.”

St. Joe parishioners have started a letter-writing campaign to the diocese as well as a Change.org petition in an effort to keep Fr. Vincent at their parish.

“He is definitely one of the good guys, and I feel so bad for him,” Nadorff said. “He tried to prevent this, he did everything he could to prevent this and now he’s in the middle of trying to clean up, trying to hold people together without getting support from Jackson.”

Lafleur said: “Father Rusty provides for us what we need to heal together. He is intimately familiar with what has taken place, and he can work with us to facilitate the grief and healing process because we trust him. And, trust is in short supply. To remove him would only perpetuate the feeling that Bishop Kopacz is not interested in what the parishioners of St. Joseph’s need.”

He added: “To that point, it would seem that the only thing the Bishop is interested in is sweeping this scandal under the rug and silencing the cries of the parishioners and the priest who tried to protect them.”

Fr. Bohn informed parishioners at St. Richard last month that he was one of the “confidential informants” in the case. He said that before the informants went to the feds, several of them first alerted the diocese.

“It appeared to me to be systemic, premeditated fraud,” Bohn later told reporters. “If you’re reasonably suspicious of criminal activity, go to law enforcement. That’s what we did.”

The priest wondered why the diocese hadn’t alerted authorities once it was aware of the fraud.

“If the diocese was suspicious of criminal behavior, why didn’t they go to law enforcement?” Bohn asked. “That’s my biggest question. Maybe they did. If they were aware of what was being alleged, why didn’t they?”

Diocese spokeswoman Maureen Smith said Monday she could not comment on the matter, including if authorities were notified by the diocese, citing an ongoing investigation.

Bohn told parishioners that when he became a priest, he was taught his first obligation was “to protect the flock.”

An examination of Bishop Kopacz’s past history could explain why his “first obligation” seemed to be to cover the scandal up.

The American Spectator’s George Neumayr reports that a knowledgeable source told him that Kopacz got his major experience in the scandal-plagued diocese of Scranton, PA, which is led by the controversial Bishop Bambera. 

Nicknamed “Bambi” by some of his priests for his role in enabling a gay clergy, Bambera is known for harassing faithful priests who tell the truth about the pederasty scandal in the Church. One such priest contacted me recounting the harassment he received after delivered a homily in which he lamented the neutralizing effect Pope Francis had on the feckless U.S. bishops’ gathering in Baltimore, a sermon his congregation greeted with applause. “I received nothing but positive feedback,” he said. But word of the sermon critical of Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops got back to Bambera, who dispatched an aide to chew the priest out.

Kopacz worked for years as Scranton’s Vicar of Priests and is criticized in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, according tothe Spectator. He was made a bishop by Pope Francis in 2014 and co-consecrated at his installation Mass by none other than Bishop Bambera. “The stench from Scranton has wafted down to Mississippi,” Neumayr declared.