A priest from Mississippi has been accused of lying about a rare cancer diagnosis in order to get thousands of dollars for his own pet projects.
Father Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez, a pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, is being investigated for fraud in connection with the scheme and the associated cover-up. The allegation was made public after it was discovered in a 37-page affidavit filed by a Department of Homeland Security special agent.
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.
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.
The reality appears to be that Vargas never had any type of cancer, let alone some rare form, and he was trying to cover up the fact that he actually had HIV. The source of this lie could have been a societal taboo related to the disease and the anti-gay bigotry practiced by many churches and religious leaders. Whatever the reason, he seems to have used the lie to rip off his own church.
Court records show Vargas announced his “diagnosis” from the pulpit many times and lied about where he was going for treatment.
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.”
This isn’t even all the money he scammed from people — this is just the amount from GoFundMe. He took other checks, as well, and the church is accused of covering it all up. So… business as usual.
It would be almost forgivable if Vargas really needed the help and just lied about which disease he had in order to get help. That’s not the case. He apparently lied due to straight-up greed. It’s another blow to Catholic Church morality.