In three weeks since federal investigators raided the offices of the Diocese of Jackson, uncovering both fraud and a cover-up at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, parishioners say the shockwaves are still reverberating in Starkville and in Macon.
A 37-page affidavit from the investigation alleges St. Joseph’s priest, Father Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez, has been operating a scheme to use more than $30,000 in donations for his own personal use, something the diocese knew of for almost three years, but never acted on.
But a pair of long-time active members of the St. Joseph congregation say it’s more than a man, more than money. It is not a crisis of faith, they say, but a crisis of confidence.
The two female parishioners agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity, sharing their own thoughts along with those of fellow parishioners in the aftermath of the scandal.
“Everybody is in a different place, emotionally, I think,” said a member we will refer to as Ann. “It depends on how much you were involved in donating. Some people gave quite a bit, others less. But it’s been pretty tough for everybody.”
“I think it was a bombshell for everybody,” Betsy said. “Just from people I’ve talked to, some of the people who were more involved in making the donations may have had a little bit of an inkling that something wasn’t quite right. But generally speaking, I think this was a shock to everybody.”
Vargas has been accused of purposeful “schemes for obtaining money by means of false and fraudulent pretense.” In the affidavit, William G. Childers, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, detailed 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 which was a recurring expense at a dating website that caters to people who are HIV-positive.
Vargas has been relieved of his duties, but the role of the diocese in the case is still upsetting to church members.
According to the affidavit, diocese officials learned of Vargas’ HIV diagnosis in 2015. Since then, a GoFundMe account to pay for the priest’s medical expenses raised $9,210, with Vargas withdrawing $8,378.32 of those donations in 2015. Between March 21 and April 21 that same year, Vargas received more than $20,000 from different sources, including 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.
That the diocese was aware of Vargas’ deceptions and allowed him to continue to withdraw funds under the pretense of using the money for cancer treatment has shaken the confidence of most parishioners, Betsy said.
“I think what many of us are questioning now is the role of the diocese in this,” she said. “Father Lenin has some sort of mental illness, something that drove him to this. But he’s one person. The diocese apparently knew about this and covered it up. How are we supposed to trust them? The diocese chose the reputation of the church over the best interests of the people. That’s what it looks like.”
‘Like a grieving process’
Bishop Joseph Kopacz, who has acknowledged that he was one of the confidential informants whose testimony was included in the affidavit, will be at St. Joseph today. He will hold a question-and-answer session with parishioners and conduct the Mass at all three services.
But for Betsy, the wounds are still too fresh, the sense of betrayal too strong.
“I”ll go to the question-and-answer session, but I won’t be going to hear the Bishop perform Mass,” she said. “I just can’t. (The bishop) knew what was going on and didn’t act. I have a hard time having any faith in what he says from a religious standpoint.”
Ann said she remains confident St. Joseph will survive the ordeal.
“It’s definitely going to take some time,” she said. “It’s very much like a grieving process. We’re a tight-knit group, but when it comes down to it, it’s about individual faith, too. It’s a growth process.
“That’s how I always explained these kind of things that shock you to my kids,” she added. “When they say, ‘Mama, I’m scared,’ I always tell them, ‘That means change is happening. This is an opportunity to grow.'”
Both women said they believe the church will stay united.
“There are other churches in West Point or Columbus, but just on my conversations with people, I don’t see a lot of people leaving over this,” Ann said. “We have an assistant priest who was not aware of what was going on. We have two lay pastors who are wonderful. It’s not like Father Lenin was the only leader of our church. He’s gone now and we know why. Just knowing that allows us to move on.”
Betsy said she was curious about what kind of attendance the church would have last week, the first services held after the news of the scandal broke on Nov. 12.
“It was packed,” she said. “I took that as a good sign. That tells me that we’re going to get through all this as a church.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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