Erwin Mena have been posing as a Catholic priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Highland Park, in a visit to cover for the original Parish who was on vacation, according to police reports.
Mena have succeeded so far in conning most Southern California Catholics into buying his religious CDs and books and deceived many parishioners into buying thousands of dollars’ worth of fake tickets to see Pope Francis in the fall, earning all the profit for pocket.
He attended seminary in El Salvador for few years before dropping out of the Seminary. Testimonies the Parish gave that he was very good in the act. He was loved by most of the parishioners; he was able to convincingly officiate Masses, funerals, and even at least one wedding. He had a likeable personality and said all the right things.
He was arrested on Tuesday by Los Angeles police for allegedly impersonating a Roman Catholic priest and on suspicion of grand theft. He has been charged with 22 felonies and 8 misdemeanors, according to a criminal complaint filed by the L.A. County district attorney’s office.
During his time in the archdiocese, Mena would also travel around from parish to parish, selling $25 videos and fundraising for a project he said he was working on – producing CDs about Pope Francis, the Los Angeles Times reports. He also reportedly asked for anywhere from $500-$1,000 from parishioners for a package deal trip to see Pope Francis during his U.S. visit. The cost supposedly included lodging at convents and airfare, and more than two dozen people signed up, Gary Guevara told CNA
Michelle Rodriguez who heard of the trip to seeing the Holy Father was excited and invited Mena for a dinner where she gave him more than $900 in cash. When she tried to get details of the meet with the Holy Father Mena was withdrawing and dodging from giving her straight forward answer “He just gave me assurances that i will get to see the Holy father, that i should just be patient”, “He used us, he stole from us, and that’s it," Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times.
Michelle is among those who have filed criminal compliant against Mena.
It was also reported that severally when Priests approached Mena and questioned him about his priesthood, he would tell them that he is a Paulist Priest.
“It’s clear he had done his homework, because Paulists specifically focus on generalization through media.” Guevara said.“Everything he said always made sense," Guevara said, “So it was kind of like the perfect storm in that nobody wanted to pull the trigger, as far as confronting him." He always had enough of an explanation to be plausible, and people generally liked him.
“There were people who thought he was a great priest, that they really liked him, he looked like a priest, he walked like a priest, he could talk like a priest all the way to the very end," Guevara added.
But Mena couldn’t fool what Guevara called the “professional Church ladies." It was a feast day with particular Mass parts, and Mena just wasn’t getting it right, he said.
“It was a complicated Mass that some of the real professional church ladies have memorized, and literally the jig was all up," Guevara said.
“He was screwing up and everybody was like, what’s going on here?"
Within hours, phone calls were being made, and the archdiocese was officially alerted of Mena’s suspicious activities. Soon after, the archdiocese reported him to the police.
“They were collecting information and they were very transparent about it," Guevara said. “They contacted the police department really quickly and provided us with everything we needed, so it was a really good partnership with us and them."
It seems that Mena may even be a repeat offender – Guevara said that according to Archdiocesan documents, there were issues with Mena as far back as the 1990s. His name has been on a list of unauthorized priests and deacons since 2008, when the record was started. The current investigation is only focusing on his recent alleged transgressions.
It’s important to note that Mena was arrested because he was allegedly masquerading as a Roman Catholic priest, Guevara said. A defrocked or retired priest could theoretically start up their own “storefront church" with a ministry certificate from the internet, but he said Mena’s offense is specifically that he pretended to be a Roman Catholic, sacrament-distributing priest.
The archdiocese has already reimbursed some of Mena’s alleged victims, and more could be reimbursed at the conclusion of the case. Because of the nature of the ongoing criminal investigation, the archdiocese could not provide much further comment, but asked that anyone with additional information come forward.
“We are grateful to the Los Angeles Police Department for working to ensure that Erwin Mena was brought to justice. Our prayers go out to all the victims of his scam. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is committed to providing pastoral care and sacramental support to the victims and others impacted by this situation," the Archdiocese said in a statement.
“If anyone in the Archdiocese has any questions regarding the validity of any priest’s credentials, or the credentials of any employee of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, please call the Archdiocese Catholic Center, at (213) 637-7000."
Source: Gary Guevara interview and reports is from Catholicnewsagency.com (CNA), edited by Mary Rezac