Bishop in St. Joseph case mentioned in past grand jury investigation


Bishop Joseph Kopacz, a 68-year-old Pennsylvania native who was installed by Pope Francis as the 11th Bishop of Jackson in February 2014, was mentioned on several occasions in a 37-page affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson Friday. (Courtesy photo)

By: 
Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

A high-ranking church official mentioned multiple times in a federal fraud investigation of a Starkville priest was recently included in a lengthy grand jury investigation report involving child sex abuse by Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. 

Bishop Joseph Kopacz, a 68-year-old Pennsylvania native who was installed by Pope Francis as the 11th Bishop of Jackson in February 2014, was mentioned on several occasions in a 37-page affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson Friday. The current investigation centers on a string of fraudulent acts and schemes by Father Lenin Vargas at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, where parishioners were allegedly scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars. 

But in what would seem to be an unrelated matter, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office in August announced the findings of a two-year grand jury investigation into sexual abuse allegations against the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, which included multiple mentions of Bishop Kopacz, who was Vicar for Priests at the Scranton Diocese during this time. 

After a review of church records, the grand jury found what it viewed as credible allegations against over 300 “predator” priests, none of which were direct accusations of sexual misconduct on the part Bishop Kopacz. 

“Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records,” the 887-page report says. “We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands.”

CLICK TO READ THE FULL GRAND JURY REPORT

Bishop Kopacz released a statement on the Diocese of Jackson’s website immediately following the release of the report in August, calling the behavior revealed “horrific.”

“The report is a stark reminder to all to whom children and young people are entrusted, starting with me in the Diocese of Jackson, that we must redouble our efforts to create safe environments for all vulnerable children of God, younger and older,” Bishop Kopacz wrote. “Likewise, we must recommit ourselves to exposing past abuse and encouraging victims to come forward.”

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a formal request for comment concerning Kopacz’s involvement in the grand jury investigation by press time on Tuesday. 

Kopacz served as the Vicar for Priests for eight years in the Diocese of Scranton from 1998 to 2006, where it was his responsibility to respond to all allegations of sexual abuse that involved clergy, along with other diocesan officials. 

The first connection to the grand jury investigation for Bishop Kopacz is mentioned in regard to Monsignor J. Peter Crynes, who was removed from active ministry in 2006. 

The report states that on March 12, 2006, then-Father Kopacz met with Crynes concerning allegations from two women who claimed Crynes made sexual contact with them — an accusation the priest did not deny when confronted by Kopacz. 

Later that month, a third woman met with Kopacz and the diocesan victim assistance coordinator. During that meeting, it was discovered that the third victim first consulted with Kopacz in 2002 and told him concerns on the advice of her confessor. 

The grand jury report says the woman then had difficulty understanding why Kopacz did not take her concerns to disocean personnel. Kopacz supposedly explained to the third victim that there was no active and defined policy mandating disclosure of such matters.

Bishop Kopacz said in August the victim initially confided in him that she had been abused, but stated that she wanted it to be held in confidence. 

“I kept that confidence and made no report,” he said in a statement. “Though her request to maintain the confidentiality of her report was documented in a prepared memo that was available to the Grand Jury,  the Grand Jury report excludes this fact.” 

However, Bishop Kopacz acknowledges that once the victim removed the restriction of confidentiality, he and other diocesan officials quickly acted to report the abuse to civil authorities and remove the offending priest from ministry.  

“Kopacz explained that he had been her confessor in the past and felt that her trust in him meant that he would not reveal her experiences to anyone,” the grand jury report says. “He stressed that he believed her and that he never forgot what she had revealed.”

But the oldest mention of Kopacz as it relates to the grand jury investigation came from 2002 when he was notified by the Archdiocese of New York about accusations against Reverend Ralph N. Ferraldo, who was first accused of molesting a young boy in December 1974. 

“In the second reference (Ferraldo), which involved a deceased priest who had been removed from ministry, the victim requested counseling and I arranged for him to receive counseling,”  Kopacz wrote in a statement. “In the third reference, I questioned the offending former priest and despite his denials (and the fact that he had previously been removed from ministry), reported this additional allegation to local authorities.” 

LOCAL CLAIMS 

In the recently-filed affidavit, multiple claims are levied against the Bishop, including participation in a cover up of alleged scams and lies perpetrated by Father Lenin Vargas of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville. 

One claim in the affidavit by a confidential informant asserts that in 2015, Bishop Kopacz was notified that Vargas had not been diagnosed with cancer, but was instead HIV positive. 

However, church leadership instead is accused of pushing the narrative of Vargas’ fake cancer diagnosis to other clergy to avoid bad publicity, when it was announced that Vargas would seek medical treatment in Canada for a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

This claim of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, however, turned out to be false according to informants, who said Vargas was instead sent to Southdown Institute of Toronto, which Vargas himself described as a “sex addiction facility for priests.” 

Additionally, the affidavit says a meeting was held in October 2017 where a group of clergy notified Bishop Kopacz and Vicar General Kevin 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. 

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. 

Kopacz, however, claims that after receiving complaints of misconduct by Vargas, he ordered an internal accounting audit of the Starkville parish’s finances and placed fiscal constraints on Vargas’ spending. 

Church leadership said it then found Vargas 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.

Pending a resolution of the investigation, Vargas is no longer involved in any capacity at St. Joseph Catholic Church. 

No formal charges have been filed against Vargas or anyone else involved in the case as of press time on Tuesday. 

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