Diocese details pastor's background as Bishop plans to visit


Father Lenin Vargas

By: 
RYAN PHILLIPS
SDN Editor

Few details have been revealed by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson concerning a Starkville priest at the center of a federal investigation. 

But through an email exchange with the Starkville Daily News, the Diocese did provide background information on Father Lenin Vargas of St. Joseph Catholic Church as church leaders address accusations that he defrauded parishioners with a fake cancer diagnosis — a scam that investigators and some in the church believe was covered up by the Diocese to avoid negative publicity. 

Diocese Communications Director Maureen Smith said Father Vargas was first ordained a priest in June 2006. Most recently the native of Mexico was the subject of a 37-page affidavit filed in federal court in Jackson last week with a search warrant for both the Starkville parish and the Diocese’s office in Jackson.

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

In the affidavit, as many as five confidential informants provided information to investigators, with at least one saying Vargas was diagnosed with HIV in 2014, but instead told parishioners at St. Joseph and Corpus Christi Mission in Macon that he had a rare form of cancer and began collecting donations for his supposed cancer treatment in Canada. 

Informants also claim he propagated at least two fraudulent pet projects — an orphanage and a chapel on a Mexican mountain — to those in the church to raise money, which he then used for unrelated personal expenses not associated with any medical expenses. 

CHURCH ADDRESSES VARGAS

Smith said Vargas attended Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. When he was first ordained in 2006, he served as the associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi in Madison, Mississippi. 

According to the Diocese’s spokesperson, Vargas also served as pastor for a time at St. Jude Catholic Church in Pearl before coming to Starkville. For the last five years, he has served as the pastor of St. Joseph - a church with a strong community presence that claims to have a congregation of more than 400 families.

As of publication of this story, the Diocese is continuing to gather information about Vargas’ past parish assignments. 

When asked if Vargas had been reprimanded by the church prior to the most recent allegations, Smith said Diocesan policy prevents the church from commenting on personnel issues. 

The church did, however, confirm that leadership is aware of Vargas’ current whereabouts, but did not specify the location. 

The Diocese also cited federal law when Father Kevin Slattery and Bishop Joseph Kopacz were asked for comment regarding allegations that they knowingly pushed the false cancer narrative to clergy and those in the church to avoid bad publicity. 

The church leaders are accused of propagating the false story, despite being aware that Vargas had been sent to Southdown Institute of Toronto — a place that Vargas described as a sexual addiction facility for priests. 

“Federal law (HIPPA) prohibits us from making any comment about the health or medical conditions of any of our employees,” Smith said. “This law bound us to strict confidentiality during the time set forth in the government’s affidavit and continues to bind us today.” 

The Diocese does claim, however, that church leadership put constraints on Vargas’ spending once church administrators became aware of the alleged scams. 

Vargas is listed as the lone defendant in the case, but no formal charges have been filed as of press time Saturday.

Smith said she was not at liberty to discuss details of Vargas’ legal defense when asked if the church would provide legal counsel for Vargas if he is charged. 

She then said the Diocese plans to provide additional information about Vargas’ background as it comes available. 

SEARCH WARRANT RETURNED 

Agents with the Department of Homeland Security carried out a pair of search warrants earlier in the month at the St. Joseph parish and the Catholic Diocese of Jackson on Nov. 7.

The inventory for the search was recently returned to U.S. Magistrate Judge F. Keith Ball and unsealed.  

According to the search warrant, agents confiscated six computers from the office of Father Kevin Slattery at the Diocesan chancery office in Jackson, where Father Slattery serves as the Vicar General of the Diocese. 

Court documents also show agents seized an off-white, four-drawer filing cabinet from Father Slattery’s office, in addition to a two-drawer wooden filing cabinet and two USB flash drives.

In this role, Father Slattery is tasked with fielding complaints and enforcing church protocol as they relate to accusations levied at clergy under the Diocese’s governance. 

The Diocese also confirmed a search warrant was carried out at St. Joseph, but the court filing showing the return of that search warrant was not unsealed as of press time on Saturday. 

Malcolm C. McMillin is listed as the executing officer who returned the search warrant. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Leary is serving as the lead on the case, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Helen Wall, who is listed in court documents as the lead attorney. 

Smith said leadership of the Diocese continues to work to resolve the issues created by the investigation and said Bishop Kopacz plans to visit the community soon. 

The Starkville Daily News previously reported that Bishop Kopacz was also recently included in a grand jury investigation headed up by the attorney general of Pennsylvania. 

Released in August, the grand jury report alleges a systematic coverup by church officials involving what it believed to be credible allegations against over 300 “predator” priests and “thousands” of victims in six Pennsylvania dioceses. 

While Bishop Kopacz, who has served in his current role in Jackson since his Papal appointment in February 2014, is mentioned multiple times in the Pennsylvania court documents, none of the sexual abuse allegations were made against him directly. 

During this time he served as Vicar for Priests at the Diocese of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania. 

He was, however, accused in at least one instance of not reporting details from a sexual abuse victim when approached, due to what he cited as the victim’s expressed desire for confidentiality. 

“The continued spiritual and financial well-being of St. Joseph Parish and Corpus Christi Mission is of the utmost importance, and we will continue to aid you both in sound fiscal management of all of your resources,” Smith said when asked if the Diocese had anything to say directly to parishioners. 

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