Embattled Bishop backs out of Starkville visit

Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

Parishioners of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville were notified over the weekend that the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson will not attend the church’s Reconciliation Service on Wednesday as originally planned.

Multiple parishioners confirmed to the Starkville Daily News that Bishop Joseph Kopacz, who has been accused of covering up alleged illegal activity by a former priest, would not be attending the regular service as one of several visiting priests. 

The announcement was made after mass on Sunday, with parishioners being told during the general announcements portion of the service that the decision was made for Bishop Kopacz not to attend in order for parishioners to be able to focus on the Sacrament. 

The Reconciliation Service, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is held multiple times a year and features outside priests coming for confession. Reconciliation Services are typically held close to Christian holidays, as is also the case with Easter. 

ALSO READ: Bishop in St. Joseph case mentioned in past grand jury investigation

Michael Nadorff has been a parishioner since he moved to Starkville in 2012. 

On Sunday, he told the Starkville Daily News that he agreed with the decision for Bishop Kopacz not to attend the Wednesday service, calling his presence a “distraction.” 

“I thought it was the right decision,” he said. “It added an element that we did not want to be there.” 

Nadorff has been outspoken against the actions of the Jackson diocese in both its handling of the alleged crimes committed and in the aftermath of the news that a once-trusted priest had defrauded parishioners out of tens of thousands of dollars. 

Nadorff, along with other parishioners, claim the Bishop’s contact with the church has been minimal, leaving more questions than answers and showing what many view to be a lack of transparency. 

“This would have been the first time we interacted with the Bishop,” he said, saying the “optics” of his presence at confession would likely not be well-received. 

While many in the church have rallied together, Nadorff says he has seen fragmentation among the church body.

“Some want to move on with a new priest, and for them to come in and embrace the person,” he said. “Then, there’s a group of people like me who can’t let it go. Things should be fixed so it doesn’t happen again.” 

In hindsight, Nadorff said action should have been taken on the part of the Jackson diocese the moment it was made aware of any wrongdoing. 

Bishop Kopacz has also received criticism for his decision to reassign Father Rusty Vincent to another parish — a move some in the church view as retaliatory. The decision was announced after Father Rusty admitted to parishioners that he was one of the informants who provided information to investigators when Father Lenin Vargas’ activities were discovered. 

Another informant, former St. Joseph pastor Father John Bohn, who is now the pastor of St. Richard Catholic Church in Jackson, previously confirmed his role in the investigation to the Starkville Daily News, but declined further comment on the investigation and accusations. 

In response to the news of Father Rusty’s reassignment, parishioners started a change.org petition to retain him at St. Joseph. 

As of press time Sunday, the petition had 296 signatures. 

The Jackson diocese previously told the Starkville Daily News that Kopacz and other church leaders will not be able to comment on any aspects of the ongoing federal investigation of Father Lenin, who served as the Starkville church’s pastor for five years until news of the investigation broke in mid-November. 

In an affidavit attached to a search warrant filed in federal court in Jackson by special agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as many as five confidential informants provided information to investigators, with at least one saying Father Lenin 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. 

ALSO READ: Diocese details pastor's background as Bishop plans visit

In addition to accusations levied against Father Lenin, Bishop Kopacz and other leadership in the Jackson diocese are accused of covering up the details of the pastor’s crimes before sending him to what Vargas referred to as a sex addiction treatment facility for priests under the guise of Father Lenin seeking specialized cancer treatment across the border in Canada. 

Bishop Kopacz also recently had to address accusations of covering up for at least one priest accused of sexual misconduct during his time at the Diocese of Scranton in Pennsylvania, which recently surfaced as part of a two-year grand jury investigation by the state’s attorney general. 

After a review of church records, the grand jury found what it viewed as credible allegations against over 300 “predator” priests, none of which were direct accusations of sexual misconduct on the part Bishop Kopacz. He was, however, accused in at least one instance of covering up the sexual misconduct of a priest, which Bishop Kopacz claimed was at the request for confidentiality from the victim at the time of the incident. 

The 68-year-old priest was installed by Pope Francis as the 11th Bishop of Jackson in February 2014. 

As of press time on Sunday, no formal charges have been filed relating to the investigation involving St. Joseph and the Catholic Diocese of Jackson.