Court docs allege priest lied about cancer diagnosis, sex addiction therapy and charity projects


Court documents allege Father Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez, a pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, is accused of lying about being diagnosed with cancer and soliciting money from parishioners for treatment and other pet projects. (Photo courtesy of Fr-Lenin Vargas, Facebook)

By: 
Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

A Starkville priest is at the center of a criminal investigation involving a string of fraudulent charity efforts that federal agents believe was covered up by church leaders in Jackson. 

According to a 37-page affidavit filed Friday by Department of Homeland Security Special Agent William G. Childers in U.S. District Court in Jackson, an ongoing investigation into Father Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez, a pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, shows the priest is accused of lying about being diagnosed with cancer and soliciting money from parishioners for treatment and other pet projects. 

The Catholic Diocese of Jackson on Monday posted to its website, saying federal agents served search and seizure warrants on the chancery office and on St. Joseph Parish on Wednesday, Nov. 7. 

Vargas, a native of Mexico, has been in Starkville for roughly five years, according to court records and agents claim, through the use of confidential informants, that Vargas, who was actually diagnosed with HIV in 2014, used the fake cancer claims to solicit tens of thousands of dollars from church parishioners over the last several years. 

No formal charges have been filed in the case and leadership at St. Joseph Catholic Church could not be reached for comment by press time on Monday. 

In a statement, the Diocese says it is cooperating with the investigation and pending the resolution of the matter, Vargas will not participate in public ministry and has been removed from all pastoral and financial administration. 

In the interim, the Diocese said Father Jeffrey Waldrep, the pastor of Annunciation in Columbus, will serve as administrator and Father Rusty Vincent will be responsible for all pastoral ministry at St. Joseph and the Corpus Christi Mission in Macon.

Waldrep shared the message from the Diocese with parishioners of St. Joseph and Corpus Christi Mission on Saturday, Nov. 10 and Sunday, Nov. 11, respectively. 

ORIGINS 

Agents claim that in late 2014, Vargas went to OCH Regional Medical Center in Starkville for “breathing trouble” and stayed in the hospital a couple of days. 

After being discharged, a confidential informant claims Vargas informed them over dinner that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer: Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, which is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

Vargas then told the informant that the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, which governs the St. Joseph Parrish, was sending him to Canada for specialized treatment that was not available stateside. 

According to its website, the Diocese of Jackson covers 65 counties in Mississippi, "from Woodville to Corinth, Vicksburg to Meridian, Paulding to Southaven." It also includes 94 parishes and missions and 19 schools and learning centers.

Later in 2014, Vargas began announcing from the pulpit that he had cancer and would seek treatment in Canada, with court records saying Vargas told parishioners of the diagnosis and plan for treatment “numerous times.” 

A GoFundMe account — a crowdsourcing medium used for raising money toward charitable causes — was established to cover Vargas’ medical expenses. 

Agents subpoenaed information from the account and used the data to corroborate information provided by informants. 

The page, entitled “Lenin’s Medical Fund,” saw 57 people donate $9,210 for Vargas, according to court documents. Additionally, the GoFundMe also propagated the claim that Vargas had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. 

To those around him, Vargas allegedly claimed to have medical insurance, but was still hampered by the high costs of his treatment and other bills mounting. 

However, agents were told by informants that the medical coverage for priests in the Diocese of Jackson is “very good, that such coverage effectively ‘covers everything,’ and that Vargas’ medical expenses were covered.” 

As the alleged scam began, another informant claims they learned from a reliable source that Vargas did not have cancer, but was diagnosed with HIV in 2014. This information was then forwarded to Bishop Joseph Kopacz in Jackson in 2015. 

Medical records provided in court documents show Vargas was admitted to OCH on Sept. 22, 2014 with pneumonia and on Sept. 26, the doctor noted his condition was not worsening but not improving either and ordered an HIV test. 

On Sept. 28, 2014 Vargas checked out of the hospital without seeing his doctor. 

Later on July 16, 2016, Vargas went to OCH Medical Associates for right knee pain and reported that he had HIV. 

While agents reported that Vargas primarily targeted parishioners at St. Joseph, the affidavit alleges a $2,300 love offering was also taken up during this time at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Macon, Mississippi for Vargas. 

Between March 21 and April 21, 2015, $20,021.69 was deposited in Vargas’ Regions account. During that same period, $13,476.18 was withdrawn from Vargas’ account. 

Agents say Vargas then spent the donated funds primarily on personal expenses, none of which were medical-related.  

The accusations continue, with informants saying that on Nov. 11, 2015, St. Joseph Parish wrote Vargas a check for $21,500. 

According to Parish records, $19,500 of the $21,500 was for “Father’s Health Donation.” 

Vargas deposited that check in his Regions account the same day and then, between Nov. 19 and Dec. 21, 2015, $33,574.04 was deposited into Vargas’ Regions account and $32,651.50 was withdrawn from the account during the same time frame. 

Informants say Vargas also raised money from parishioners for an orphanage in Mexico and a chapel on a mountain in Mexico, but spent the money on personal expenses and used interstate wire communications to spend part of the donated money. 

Vargas’ story supposedly evolved over time, according to agents, with the priest saying the orphanage was located in the slums of the Mexican city of Morelia. He then said it was run by an ex-nun, who moved homeless children into her house. 

The affidavit says all of the department’s informants claim they are not aware of Vargas ever mentioning the specific name or even address of the orphanage, nor did he ever provide letters or correspondence from a Mexican orphanage and never provided receipts for money allegedly given to the orphanage. 

Agents then accused Vargas of even grooming "target parishioners" before asking for donations. Court documents allege he would take the target out to lunch or dinner and always paid for the meal, which were ultimately paid for by the parish. 

After ingratiating himself, agents say he would then give the parishioner the opportunity to donate to his cause. 

One informant claimed they gave a $5,000 check to St. Joseph Parish and Vargas called them to ask if the money could be used for the orphanage, to which the informant agreed. 

In another instance, one parishioner allegedly wrote a check for chapel in Mexico for $20,000 and another on the same day (June 13, 2018) for $400. The parishioner had to withdraw $21,000 from their retirement account to cover the checks. 

The Diocese of Jackson has stern rules against priests raising money for pet projects, and the parish priest must present a project explanation to the Diocese and obtain approval. 

Informants do not believe Vargas followed any of the diocesan protocols when soliciting money. 

TREATMENT AND ALLEGED COVER UP 

In April 2015, Vargas informed parishioners at the church that we has going to Canada for his specialized cancer treatment and proceeded to collect money for the treatment. 

An informant then reported that Vargas did not go to Canada for cancer treatment. Rather, he went to Southdown Institute of Toronto. 

According to the Diocese of Jackson cited in the affidavit, the Southdown Institute was founded specifically to address the needs of religious and clergy around mental health and addiction. 

“Southdown remains committed to assisting the Church to provide healthy ministers and develop healthy communities of faith,” the facility’s mission statement says. “(Sic) Majority of residents who come to Southdown are sponsored by a religious community or diocese, however, we continue to raise additional funds to support those who come from communities with scarce resources.” 

It was also confirmed by agents that Vargas stated the facility was a sexual addiction facility for priests. 

Court documents then claim in March 2015, the Diocese of Jackson furthered Vargas’ cancer story by sending out an email to priests in the Diocese. The email, from Father Kevin Slattery, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jackson, says “Announcement about Father Lenin Vargas.”

While confidential informants say the Diocese of Jackson was aware of Vargas’ HIV diagnosis when he was sent to Canada, the email includes a message from Vargas saying he was diagnosed with lymphoplasmascytic lymphoma. He then said he developed diabetes as a result of his treatment. 

Federal agents believe the email was sent to perpetuate the cancer story and hide his HIV condition to protect the Diocese from negative publicity. 

What’s more, the affidavit says a meeting was held in October 2017 where a group of clergy notified Bishop Kopacz and Vicar General Slattery of concerns over the spiritual and financial wellbeing of St. Joseph Parish.

At the October 2017 meeting, the two leaders were allegedly told that Vargas was raising significant amounts of money for cancer treatment and unverified charitable causes. They were also informed that Vargas was making numerous trips to Mexico and there was money missing from the parish coffers. 

Additionally, informants believe Vargas was pocketing money from Sunday collections when the collections were counted on Mondays. 

Vargas supposedly became angry when he learned the Diocese was contacted following Sunday collection protocol and opposed putting a camera in the room that contained the collections. 

According to the affidavit, the trips to Mexico also raised red flags because informants say Vargas utilized wire communications via Skype to communicate with a Mexican individual known as Sergio Picon. 

The Skypes occurred on a daily basis and the informants believed Sergio Picon is a resident of Morelia, Mexico and owns a bar named Heaven and Hell - which Vargas attended the grand opening of this past summer.  

Bishop Kopacz and Vicar General Slattery told the concerned clergy they would look into the issue, but never followed up with the clergy or the St. Joseph Parish counsel about the meeting, according to the affidavit. 

Informants say Vicar General Slattery was aware Vargas was soliciting money from church parishioners for a Mexican orphanage and that he knew the story was at least in part a scam created by Vargas to get money. 

Vicar General Slattery is then cited in the affidavit suggesting it would be better if Vargas not return to Mississippi after his "abbatical."

However, agents believe Vargas continued to solicit money from the parishioners, especially the “vulnerable elderly” and little was done by the Diocese of Jackson to protect parishioners. 

The Diocese statement, which was provided by Father Waldrep, claims that after receiving complaints, Bishop Kopacz ordered an internal accounting audit of the Starkville parish’s finances.  

After the audit was conducted, the Diocese claims it placed fiscal constraints on Vargas’ spending and found that he was violating diocesan policy concerning soliciting charitable donations and demanded that he stop the activities and conduct no further charitable fundraising without first informing the diocese of any planned activities.

Waldrep then said in the statement that due to federal law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), prohibits discussion by church leaders of Vargas’ medical condition. 

“In fact, HIPPA law continues to bind us today in that we can neither admit nor deny anything related to Rev. Vargas’ medical condition,” the statement reads. 
 

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