Ex-priest indicted on wire fraud charges

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STARKVILLE, Miss. (WJTV) – A non-profit organization is calling for a bishop to step down after a ex-priest was indicted on 10 counts of wire fraud.

Prosecutors said Father Lenin Vargas faked having cancer and scammed parishioners to donate money for personal expenses.

Vargas was the pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville and Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Macon.

According to indictment papers, he contracted HIV before September 2014. The Catholic Diocese of Jackson covered his treatment.

Prosecutors said he lied, telling his parishioners he had cancer and needed to raise money to cover those expenses. Mark Belenchia of SNAP Mississippi, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Vargas took advantage of people.

“This is not about Christianity or church or anything like that,” said Belenchia. “It’s about an institution that’s willing to protect itself and its assets. It’s all about the flow of capital.”

From January 2015 through September 2018, Vargas allegedly had parishioners to send money to him. Vargas claimed he needed money for his cancer treatments, support for an orphanage and for construction of a chapel in Mexico.

Parishioners would write checks to Vargas and donate through GoFundMe. Through the use of international wires, tens of thousands of dollars were transferred to Mexico where he and a man he had a close personal relationship with, built up a nest egg. Belenchia is now calling on Bishop Joseph Kopacz to resign.

“He’s got a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. federal government,” said Belenchia. “To me, that’s a plea bargain, and if you read his statement he never admits to anything, he goes on about reconciliation and how he participated in getting to the truth. The truth is, he is protecting the institutional church and all their little secrets.”

Prosectuors said Kopacz knew about Varagas’ HIV diagnosis in January of 2015 and learned he was lying to parishioners in March of that year. The indictment states he paid for Vargas to attend a mental health program in Canada.

The diocese said it entered in an agreement with federal prosecutors to tighten financial controls. Over the last year and half, federal authorities investigated and executed search warrants at the parish in Starkville, the mission in Macon and the offices at the diocese in Jackson.

The Deferred Prosecution Agreement spells out a number of specific changes the Diocese is to undertake and maintain including:

• Return of donations related to alleged fraudulent activities against parishioners
• Undertake staff changes in the Accounting and Chancery Offices
• Improvements in accounting for donations and priest spending
• Formation of a new review board focusing on ethical conduct
• Establish a fraud prevention hotline
• Revise collection policies
• Initiate formal penal process for Vargas

“During the course of the investigation, the Diocese has worked to bring forth the truth that would lead to a just resolution and reconciliation throughout our Catholic community,” said Kopacz.

“There are still steps to be taken and certainly more changes ahead,” added Kopacz. “As part of an agreed upon resolution of the federal investigation, the Diocese will welcome periodic review and oversight of its financial and management practices and protocols. As a result of the many steps we have already taken to tighten our internal controls, we are very comfortable with this resolution.”

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