GoFundMe to refund more than $9k raised in alleged cancer scam

Father Lenin Vargas

Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

Refunds will be provided to those who contributed money to an online fundraising campaign by a Starkville priest currently under federal investigation for defrauding parishioners by way of a fake cancer diagnosis and pet projects.

The popular crowdsourcing website GoFundMe, which has gained popularity as a source of online fundraising for charitable causes, announced on Tuesday it would refund money raised by Father Lenin Vargas of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, who was mentioned in a 37-page affidavit attached to a search warrant filed in federal court in Jackson late last week.

While the GoFundMe was a smaller part in Vargas’ allegedly fraudulent fundraising tactics, agents with the Department of Homeland Security subpoenaed information from the account and used the data to corroborate information provided by confidential informants as part of the investigation.

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

"Campaigns with misuse are very rare, making up less than one tenth of one percent of all campaigns,” a GoFundMe spokesperson said in a statement. “With that said, there are instances where individuals fabricate a diagnosis and commit fraud. In this case, GoFundMe has taken action, banned the individual, and will offer refunds to the donors.”

GoFundMe then said if law enforcement or a user finds campaigns are misused, donors are fully protected and will get refunded.

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.

According to court records, he was then sent to Southdown Institute of Toronto, which Vargas described as a sex addiction facility for clergy. During this time, he was supposedly seeking specialized cancer treatment in Canada, which was a message agents believe was pushed by church leadership to avoid the potentially bad publicity if Vargas’ HIV diagnosis was known.

Examples of other alleged scams include one instance where an 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 a “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. 

In response to the high-profile investigation, St. Joseph Catholic Church released a statement saying “There is so much out there that is unknown, especially with an investigation that is currently ongoing so there is very little that we are able to speak about concerning allegations.”

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.

Father Waldrep notified parishioners of the investigation at both St. Joseph and Corpus Christi Mission in Macon over the weekend.

St. Joseph Parish staff said in the statement that church leadership will share facts as they come available and will do so through email, Facebook and in the church bulletin.

No charges have been filed in the case as of press time on Wednesday and pending completion of the investigation, Vargas is no longer involved in any capacity at St. Joseph or Corpus Christi Mission in Macon.