Advocate defends priest as Diocese denies retaliation rumors


Father Lenin Vargas, the former pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, is at the center of a federal investigation where he is accused of defrauding parishioners out of tens of thousands of dollars (file photo)

By: 
Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

As accusations swirl amid a federal investigation into alleged crimes committed by a Starkville pastor, one advocate involved with the Catholic Church has been a vocal supporter of the man at the center of the controversy. 

Sue Allen, coordinator of the social justice ministry with Catholic Charities Inc., says she is close friends with Father Lenin Vargas, the former St. Joseph pastor accused of lying about his HIV diagnosis while propagating a fake cancer diagnosis and non-existent charity projects to defraud parishioners of tens of thousands of dollars.

Catholic Charities is a secular affiliate of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, but is not directly involved with operations at the diocese. The group does charity work all over the state, in addition to its aid efforts for parishes in its diocese.

Allen, who is a parishioner of St. Joseph, says she is in regular contact with Father Lenin, commenting that his current mental state was one of sadness, but not without hope that the truth will exonerate him of any accusations.

“He is utterly devastated to read in the papers what the accusations are,” Allen said. “Because they paint him in a way and they accuse him of things he has not done. They label him. They raise images of him that are totally contrary to his character, so he’s deeply hurt. At the same time, there’s not one single ounce of hatred or bitterness, nothing but love and compassion for even the people who have accused him.”

The organization also advocates for restorative justice and fair treatment of those accused or convicted of crimes — a longstanding platform in the history of the Catholic Church.

While Allen professed the innocence of Vargas, she did say he acknowledged that he lied to parishioners at both St. Joseph and Corpus Christi Mission in Macon about the HIV diagnosis, due to his fear that the revelation would impact his ability to serve as a minister.

In an affidavit attached to a federal search warrant, several confidential informants in the church are reported to have relayed information to federal agents supporting allegations that Father Lenin had used a fake cancer diagnosis to raise money, in addition to collecting funds for pet projects in Mexico.

The legitimacy of the charity projects remains a subject of the investigation, while it is alleged in the court documents that Father Lenin spent the funds collected solely on non-medical related expenses.

The other accusations against Father Lenin and church leadership, however, are completely false according to Allen.

“I happen to know for a fact he was telling the truth about the charities,” Allen said when asked about the accusations. “We saw a slideshow about the orphanage (Father Lenin) was helping. We should know those shoes and school supplies were in fact given to the orphanage. We should know better, we should be questioning, we should be patient with this process of the investigation because right now they are just accusations.”

Allen also cited an alleged journal entry by Father Lenin as proof of the legitimacy of the charity projects.

Another issue raised by church officials came with references to Southdown Institute of Toronto, Canada as a sexual addiction therapy for priests.

Father Lenin was supposedly sent to the facility for unspecified reasons. However, a confidential informant on the investigation used the characterization of the facility after a conversation with Father Lenin, according to the affidavit.

Founded in 1966 and located approximately 40 miles north of Toronto, Southdown Institute says it “provides preventative and restorative care to clergy and vowed religious using the integration of psychological, physical and interpersonal practice with the wisdom of the Catholic Spiritual Tradition.”
 
The Catholic Church has a well-documented history of sending priests to Southdown, after it was revealed by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation in August that the facility treated several priests accused of sexual misconduct.

The church has made no secret of its relationship with the Canadian treatment facility, but insists that priests are treated also for mental health, substance abuse and other issues.

Maureen Smith, communications director for the Jackson Diocese, said it was wholly inaccurate for Father Lenin to have characterized Southdown as a “sexual addiction facility for priests.”

“It’s a mental health facility,” Smith explained, saying Southdown offers a wide range of services.

The Starkville Daily News previously reported that in April 2015, Father Lenin informed parishioners at the church that he was going to Canada for specialized cancer treatment and proceeded to collect money for the treatment.

The affidavit claims Father Lenin instead went to Southdown at the request of church leadership in the Jackson diocese.

Allen did, however, concede that the optics were not favorable, but said any unprofessed wrongdoing on the part of Father Lenin was likely the unfortunate result of his deep commitment to the church and his priesthood.

“He is praying for (those accusing him) and hoping for the best,” Allen said. “He hopes to continue serving and looks forward to an opportunity to apologize to the parishes, because he deeply regrets lying to the parishes about the diagnosis. His priesthood is everything to him.”

Father Lenin’s attorney, Hal Neilson of Neilson Law Office in Oxford, is also defending his client’s innocence, but told the Starkville Daily News on Monday that because of the ongoing nature of the investigation and the fact that no formal charges have been filed in federal court, he would not provide any comment at this time.

DIOCESE ADDRESSES CONCERNS

While the Starkville parish and Corpus Christi Mission in Macon wait for developments in the investigation, accusations have also been heard concerning what some in the church believe was retaliation against a priest revealed to be an informant in the investigation of Father Lenin and the diocese.

Earlier this month, it was announced that Father Rusty Vincent would be reassigned by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson — a move St. Joseph parishioners viewed as punishment for his role in the investigation, which alleges a coverup of Father Lenin’s wrongdoing by Bishop Joseph Kopacz and other church leaders.

ALSO READ: Embattled Bishop backs out of Starkville visit 

Smith told the Starkville Daily News on Monday that while the Jackson diocese understands the perception of the decision by St. Joseph parishioners, especially considering the timing, the move to reassign Father Rusty was in motion well before the news of the investigation broke.

"The assignments were coming up in January, and were talked about all summer,” Smith said. “There is a personnel board that meets and they decide about good fits. The idea to send him to Vicksburg happened during the summer. The pastor has rights in that process, and he agreed.”

Despite what the church viewed as Father Rusty’s interest in a reassignment to Vicksburg, parishioners formed a petition to retain the priest. As of press time on Monday, the petition had gathered 297 signatures.

Smith then said Father Rusty conveyed to church leadership that he wanted to stay at the Starkville parish when news of the investigation went public, and while the personnel board considered the matter, it continues to lean toward Father Rusty going to Vicksburg.

The diocese does, however, allow priests to appeal a decision.

“Father Jason (Johnston) is such a good fit for Starkville and Father Rusty moving to Vicksburg is a promotion, he will be head pastor,” she said. “The timing wasn’t perfect, but it was not something done after (he was revealed to be an informant).” 

Allen agreed with Smith, saying Father Rusty knew he was going to be transferred in advance of the controversy coming to light, which she said underscores a need for parishioners to be patient and wait for the facts of the case to surface.

“(Father Rusty) has a ton of support behind him. He’s a good man and loves his community,” Allen said. “I know it looks like he was yanked because he was an informant. Absolutely furthest from the truth. It’s one of those situations where that’s what it looks like. Father Rusty knew he was going to be transferred and was looking forward to being transferred. His desire to stay here was to be part of the healing.”

Allen then encouraged parishioners to wait for the investigation to work itself out and let due process take its course. When looking at all of the players, she called them “nice guys” who are “caught up in a situation of doing what they think is best and it doesn’t always have the best results.”

“(Father Rusty) has a good motivation, the Bishop had a good motivation, I think Father Lenin has a good motivation,” Allen added. “These are all good people who are human and who made mistakes. We can recover from this, but if people want their money back, give them their money back. If they want an apology, the opportunity should be given. You don’t fully heal until you’ve fully forgiven.” 

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