STARKVILLE, Miss. (WLBT) - Lenin Vargas, a former Mississippi pastor, faces up to 20 years in prison after an indictment on wire fraud charges.
Department of Homeland Security has been investigating Vargas and the Diocese of Jackson over the allegations since 2018. Vargas was a priest at two churches, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville and Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Macon, while operating under the Diocese.
According to a document obtained by WLBT 3 On Your Side in November 2018, Vargas was accused of taking donations under the guise of being a cancer patient. Investigators say this was a lie, and that Vargas actually had HIV and was using cancer to cover for that. There are no medical records to suggest Vargas ever had cancer.
According to these documents, the Diocese of Jackson was aware of the fraud and helped spread the priest’s false story about a cancer diagnosis. Law enforcement executed a search warrant on the Diocese of Jackson in November 2018.
Several parishioners sent emails to Bishop Joseph Kopacz over concerns of Vargas’ fundraising. At least three of them asked the bishop why the church was not paying for the treatments, but were told the Diocese did not do that.
Investigators say the Diocese paid for Vargas to go through a 14-week mental health treatment in Toronto in April 2015 after learning about his false cancer diagnosis. Vargas allegedly told parishioners that he went to Canada for a specialized cancer treatment.
Vargas was indicted in February 2020, but the information inside the indictment was not made public until July 15.
According to the indictment, the frauds were “continual” and took place between January 2015 and Summer 2018.
There are also claims that Vargas asked for money from parishioners to support an orphanage and construct a chapel in Mexico. Investigators say Vargas wired the donations to himself and Sergio Picon in Mexico, where Vargas is from.
Investigators don’t believe the Diocese knew about Vargas wiring money to Mexico.
It’s believed Vargas was able to solicit nearly $200,000 from parishioners in total.
The Catholic Diocese of Jackson says they’ve entered an agreement with federal prosecutors as part of the investigation. Click here to read their full statement.
“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 Bishop Joseph Kopacz.
A deferred prosecution agreement calls for the Diocese to:
- Return donations related to fraudulent claims
- Change staff within Accounting and Chancery offices
- Improve accounting for donations and priest spending
- Form a new review board on ethical conduct
- Establish a hotline for fraud prevention
- Revise their collection policies
The Diocese will also initiate a formal penal process for Vargas.