Jackson, Miss., Dec 7, 2018 / 10:57 am (CNA).- The federal investigation of a priest who allegedly fundraised more than $42,000 fraudulently, including through a GoFundMe campaign, has led Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson, Mississippi to ask those who donated to document their giving for the diocese.
“He has asked anyone who donated to Father Vargas directly to notify the chancery offices and provide any documentation they may have, as well as a narrative outlining the circumstances of the donation so the diocese can submit a claim to the insurance company,” diocesan spokeswoman Maureen Smith told CNA.
“We will continue to work toward healing and restorative justice in Starkville and in the diocese,” she said.
Questions about the financial activities of Father Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Starkville, led to federal agents raiding the parish and the chancery office of the Diocese of Jackson on Nov. 7.
Agents with the Department of Homeland Security have been investigating accusations that the priest raised money by lying that he had cancer when in fact he was HIV positive and was sent to a sexual addiction facility for priests in Canada, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported in early November.
Details come in an affidavit from Homeland Security Special Agent William Childers, filed Nov. 2 in U.S. District Court in Jackson.
The affidavit said investigators have probable cause to believe that Vargas obtained money through means of false and fraudulent pretense, using wire communications. It charged that the Diocese of Jackson knew about the felony and concealed it by not making it immediately known.
No criminal charges have yet been filed.
Father Vargas, a Mexican native, was removed from ministry pending the outcome of the investigation. He was ordained a diocesan priest in 2006. His parish in Starkville, a city of about 25,000 people, also serves campus ministry at Mississippi State University.
According to the affidavit, federal agents in August or September met with five confidential informants who had years of experience with the diocese to discuss allegations about Vargas.
After the weekend raid, the diocese said in a statement that the parish and the diocese are cooperating in the investigation. It announced that Vargas would not engage in public ministry and had been removed from all pastoral and financial administration pending the outcome of the investigation.
In April 2015, Vargas went to the Toronto-based Southdawn Institute, which treats priests with addiction or mental health issues, inducing sexual addiction. He told parishioners it was for cancer treatment. In April and May 2015, the church bulletin invited parishioners to write to the priest, at the address of the Southdawn Institute.
During a September 2014 hospital visit, a doctor ordered an HIV test for the priest but he checked out without seeing his doctor. In July 2016, the priest’s medical records show, he told hospital authorities he had HIV.
The GoFundMe project established on behalf of the priest claimed that Vargas faced high costs associated with his cancer treatment and had significant bills. A reported 57 people gave $9,210 to the GoFundMe funding project, which had a disclaimer saying the Jackson diocese was not responsible for the campaign.
Several of the informants told federal agents that the diocese’s medical coverage is very good and that Vargas’ medical expenses were covered.
Additionally, parishioners and others gave more than $33,000 to Vargas. He allegedly raised funds to support a chapel and orphanage in Mexico, but used the money for personal expenses instead.
According to the affidavit, one informant said Bishop Kopacz was forwarded information that the priest had HIV, not cancer, in 2015. Two informants said they believe the diocese was aware of the diagnosis when he went to the Southdawn Institute. The affadavit alleges that the diocese supported Vargas’ cancer story in an email sent to diocesan priests in March 2015.
Vargas “continued to raise money for his supposed cancer treatment” and the federal agent “believes the email was sent in order to perpetuate the cancer story, to hide Vargas’ HIV condition and protect the Diocese of Jackson from negative publicity,” said the affidavit.
In October 2017, the affidavit said, concerned clergy told Bishop Kopacz and vicar general Kevin Slattery that Vargas was raising significant amounts of money for his reported cancer treatment and unverified charitable causes. They reported Vargas’ many trips to Mexico and money missing from parish accounts.
“After receiving complaints, Bishop Joseph Kopacz ordered an internal accounting audit of the Starkville parish’s finances,” diocesan spokeswoman Maureen Smith said in a Nov. 12 statement.
After diocesan staff finished the audit, the diocese placed fiscal constraints on Vargas’ spending and found that he was violating the diocese’s policy regarding solicitation of charitable donations. The diocese “demanded that he stop these activities and conduct no further charitable fundraising without first informing the diocese of these planned activities,” Smith said.
While facts about the priest’s health are at issue, the diocese said federal privacy laws prevent them from stating anything.
“Federal law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPPA, prohibits our discussion of Father Vargas’ medical condition — not only when we first learned of it, but also throughout the time period mentioned in the affidavit,” Smith said. “In fact, HIPPA law continues to bind us today in that we can neither admit nor deny anything related to Rev. Vargas’ medical condition.”
Fr. Jeffrey Waldrep, pastor of Annunciation in Columbus, was named parish administrator while Fr. Rusty Vincent was put in charge of all pastoral ministry at the parish and at its Corpus Christi mission.
“We ask that you pray for everyone involved as we continue to work toward a resolution,” the diocese said Nov. 12.
Bishop Kopacz hosted listening sessions at the parish and its mission, which turned contentious, the Clarion-Ledger reported. The previously rescheduled assignment of priests, including the priest now in charge of the parish’s pastoral ministry, has also become controversial.
“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” parishioner Garett LaFleur said. “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 cover-ups.”
While parishioners have voiced concern that parish reassignments of priests were decided based on the case, Smith said these decisions were separate.
“I do think it is important to note: the bishop does not know who the confidential informants are. While the Clarion-Ledger story identifies Father Vincent as one, the story does not attribute the source for that statement,” Smith told CNA.
“He was already on the list of priests up for reassignment prior to the investigation,” Smith added, saying reassigning priests requires “months of work on the part of the personnel board.”
“All of the moves announced last weekend were part of a process that long predated the federal investigation.”
One local pastor who said he was among the informants cited in the affidavit was not moved, Smith noted.