For some parishioners at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, the cure seems almost as bad as the illness.
A petition on change.org asks Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson and Thomas Rodi, the archbishop of Mobile, Alabama, to rescind the decision to replace the church’s current parochial vicar (assistant pastor) Father Rusty Vincent in the wake of an alleged fraud scandal involving former St. Joseph Priest Father Lenin Vargas.
As of Tuesday morning, 235 people had signed the petition asking that Vincent remain at St. Joseph.
Some parishioners believe the move to remove Vincent was retaliatory — Vincent had confirmed he was one of four confidential informants who provided information to federal investigators about Vargas’ conduct. Vargas has been relieved of his pastoral duties but no criminal charges have yet been filed.
The federal investigation so far points to Vargas defrauding his parishioners and others who donated in a GoFundMe campaign of tens of thousands of dollars for what he claimed was cancer treatment after being diagnosed with HIV and instead using donated funds for personal expenses. He’s also been accused of raising money for a supposed chapel and orphanage in Mexico and using those funds on personal expenses, including a recurring expense at a dating website that caters to people who are HIV-positive.
Coincidence or retaliation?
In the aftermath of the scandal, many parishioners expressed confidence in Vincent to lead the church as it recovered from the scandal, and when Kopacz announced the changes — Father Jason Johnston of St. Frances of Assisi parish in Madison will replace Vincent — the move was met with criticism.
“It definitely caught us by surprise,” said David Buys, who noted the bishop did not mention the changes when he held listening sessions before each church service on Dec. 2. “It reinforced the sense that we have a bishop who is not attending to the needs of the parish.”
Another St. Joseph member, George Parker, believes the decision to replace Vincent was definitely retaliation.
“I feel like Father Vincent dared to be a whistle-blower and is being punished,” Parker said. “It’s an attempt to break the bond between us and our associate pastor. I think a lot of us just saw this as political tap dancing and circling the wagons to protect the diocese from criticism.”
Kopacz did not return calls from The Dispatch, but in a two-page letter sent to parishioners he outlined the procedures involved in making the changes at the church, as well as explained the change in roles for Vincent and Johnston, neither of whom responded to interview requests.
In the letter, Kopacz noted that the changes were part of the church’s regular procedures.
“Most dioceses, including the Diocese of Jackson, have a personnel committee, a group of priests who discuss staffing parishes, schools and ministries,” he wrote. “When a newly ordained priest is ordained, he will serve in a support role for a few years before he takes over a community himself. These assignments as parochial vicars have a time limit, just as pastors do. They can range anywhere from one to four years. As that term comes to a conclusion, the committee will speak to the priest, and deliberate among themselves to determine the best assignment for the priest.”
Diocese of Jackson communications director Maureen Smith said that is what happened with Vincent and Johnston.
“Father Vincent will be leaving to become priest at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Vicksburg where he will replace Father Tom Lalor, who is retiring,” Smith said. “It’s one of about four changes that were made and all of them were months in the making. The timing in Father Vincent’s case is unfortunate, but it had nothing to do with the recent events there. This was a promotion that Father Vincent was in line for.”
Consideration for church circumstances
Buys said he believes the current circumstances should have delayed Vincent’s reassignment.
“What we are asking is for the bishop and archbishop to consider the current circumstances,” Buys said. “If this was something they determined earlier, before Father Lenin was removed, they should understand the circumstances now are much different. We need their decision to reflect the current needs of our church. Given what we have gone through, all the trauma, we need some continuity, time to grieve and mourn together and recover together. I think Father Rusty could really help with that.”
Parker said he remains unconvinced that the timing of Vincent’s removal is coincidental.
“According to canon law, the priest is supposed to be a part of any discussion about new assignments,” Parker said. “It was obvious that Father Vincent was as surprised by this move as the rest of us. I still believe it’s a cover-up by the diocese.”
Buys said he’s not sure what effect the petition will ultimately have.
“I prefer to be optimistic,” Buys said. “I would never underestimate the power of our shared voices to bring about change. I’m hopeful that our shared voices will cause the bishop and diocese officials to reconsider the decision they have made.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.