A Starkville priest is in the crosshairs of a federal investigation into allegations of fraud and has been removed from duty at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
Father Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez has been accused of purposeful “schemes for obtaining money by means of false and fraudulent pretense.” In a 37-page affidavit, William G. Childers, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, lays out several accusations against the priest in the ongoing investigation, including that he lied about having cancer after being diagnosed with HIV and used donated funds for personal expenses.
The affidavit also accuses Vargas of lying to his parishioners about collecting funds for an orphanage and chapel in Mexico, having instead used those funds on personal expenses. One of those expenses was a recurring expense at dating website that caters to people who are HIV-positive.
Homeland Security agents raided the Catholic Diocese of Jackson on Nov. 7, according to a Clarion-Ledger report.
Childers’ report relies on information from five confidential informants who agents interviewed in August and September.
The affidavit contends Vargas’ efforts to defraud his congregation began after a late 2014 visit to OCH Regional Medical Center when he began to claim that he’d been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Vargas announced numerous times to his parishioners that he had cancer and would seek treatment in Canada, according to the affidavit.
A GoFundMe account was created for Vargas in February 2015. The proceeds were meant for Vargas’ supposed cancer treatment. Childers’ affidavit says 57 people donated $9,210 to the account.
According to the report, Vargas withdrew $8,478.32 of the donated GoFundMe money between March 24 and April 13, 2015.
Between March 21 and April 21 that same year, Vargas received $20,202.69 from different sources. The affidavit doesn’t make clear if that total includes the GoFundMe donations, but it does include a “love offering” of $2,300 from the Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Macon.
On Nov. 24, 2015, St. Joseph’s issued Vargas a $21,500 check, of which $19,500 were for “Father’s Health Donation.” Vargas deposited that money to his personal Regions Bank account the same day.
“Vargas spent the donated funds largely on personal expenses,” the affidavit says. “None of the withdrawals were for medical expenses.”
The affidavit also claims that Vargas, seeking donations from parishioners to help an orphanage and to build a chapel in Mexico, received more than $20,000 in donations, much of which was spent for personal expenses.
According to Confidential informant No. 2 and records Homeland Security subpoenaed from OCH, Vargas was diagnosed with HIV in 2014.
Hospital records, according to the report, show Vargas was admitted to OCH on Sept. 22, 2014, with pneumonia. On Sept. 26, a doctor noted that Vargas’ condition was neither improving nor worsening and ordered an HIV test. On Sept. 28, the affidavit says, Vargas checked out of the hospital without seeing his doctor.
Vargas reported during multiple visits to OCH in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with HIV, according to the affidavit.
Confidential Informant No. 2 reported to agents that Bishop Kopacz, of the Jackson Diocese, was informed of Vargas’ diagnosis in 2015.
In March 2015, Father Kevin Slattery, the Jackson Diocese’s vicar general, sent an email to the diocese’s priests about Vargas’ illness. The email included a section, written by Vargas, claiming he had cancer and that he would be receiving treatment.
Childers wrote in the affidavit that he “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.”
Childers also reports that, according to Confidential Informant No. 2, Vargas went to Canada, but did not go for cancer treatment. Vargas went to the Southdown Institute of Toronto, which Confidential Informant No. 4 said was, “among other things, a sexual addiction facility for priests.”
Vargas removed from duty
According to a statement issued by the Jackson Diocese, Vargas has been barred from engaging in any public ministry and has been removed from all pastoral and financial administrations.
Father Jeffrey Waldrep, of Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus, is serving as St. Joseph’s administrator, while Father Rusty Vincent, the associate pastor of St. Joseph’s, will oversee pastoral ministry at St. Joseph’s in Starkville and Corpus Christi in Macon.
Waldrep, in an emailed response to an inquiry from The Dispatch, said the added duties will be a major undertaking for him.
“This will directly affect my ministry here at Annunciation,” he said. “I will be required to split my time administratively with Annunciation Parish, Columbus, St. Joseph Parish, Starkville and Corpus Christi Mission in Macon.
“While a huge challenge, I do feel that God has called me to be there for all three communities that I have a deep love and appreciation for,” he continued. “My prayer is that the staffs and great parish leadership will be able to assist in the days and months ahead.”
St. Joseph’s officials contacted The Dispatch Monday said they could not comment on the issue.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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