Retired high school teacher and Catholic Joaquin Oviedo was raised not to question people in roles of authority — like priests. So when Erwin Mena waltzed into his southern California church claiming to be a man of the cloth, few guessed the priest was a fake.
“What he said is holy writ. We never imagined he was a phony.”
This fake priest has now been stripped of his imposter’s robes and arrested. He faces 30 charges, most of them felonies, the Los Angeles Times reported. Charges include perjury, forgery, grand theft, and practicing medicine without a license.
The 59-year-old con man swindled thousands from parishioners in churches across southern California, in San Bernardino, Stockton, Fresno, and Orange County. He officiated marriages, performed sacraments, collected donations, and sold fake tickets to see Pope Francis during his historic visit to the U.S.
And it was all lies.
The fake priest had allegedly been conning unsuspecting Catholics in the Los Angeles archdiocese since the mid-1990s. Drifting from parish to parish, prayer group to prayer group, he would hawk CDs and a book he claimed to have written, called Confessions of a Renegade Catholic Priest. Whenever the archdiocese got wise, the “padre” would vanish.
The fake priest managed to skirt around procedures most archdioceses have in place to sniff out and prevent fake priests from infiltrating their churches to scam parishioners. The Los Angeles archdiocese has a list of unauthorized priests and deacons, and whenever a new priest shows up, he must provide some credentials to prove he’s a man of the cloth. Erwin was among the 95 swindlers on this list since its inception in 2008.
But last year, the con man found a parish in need. In January 2015, St. Ignatius of Loyola in Highland Park needed a substitute, and the pastor there trusted the man enough to let him celebrate at his church. People liked him, including Oviedo.
“He smiled, talked about how good things were. There was never anything negative. He was not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher.”
But when Mass finished, he’d start trying to sell his flock a DVD for $25, which he had pirated from footage produced in Madrid. He accepted $16,000 from an unnamed organization to record and produce CDs about the pope, CNN added. He solicited donations for the church but pocketed the cash. The arrested “father” allegedly swindled hundreds of dollars from many people, and nearly $12,000 from one person alone.
But when Pope Francis arrived in the U.S., he saw a huge opportunity to rake in even more dough.
Selling bogus tickets to see the Holy Father in Philadelphia and New York ended up being his biggest scam, taking $500 to $1,000 from people to supposedly cover airfare and lodging in convents. Two dozen people paid up, including 60-year-old legal secretary Michelle Rodriguez. She gave Mena $900, but whenever she asked for details about the trip, the now-arrested imposter would only tell her to be patient.
The district attorney’s office said that “he never made the arrangements and the trip didn’t take place.”
By June, the pastor at St. Ignatius turned the phony in to police. Soon after, detectives, the lawyer for the Los Angeles archdiocese, and an investigator who works for the church had a meeting. Mena’s scam was exposed, the fake priest arrested, and some of his victims reimbursed. A marriage he performed has been redone, and some sacraments performed again.
Now arrested and sitting in an LA jail, Mena faces 19 counts of grand theft of property and eight counts of petty theft. In total, he allegedly took $53,000 from parishioners at St. Ignatius and St. Bernard Catholic Church in Glassell Park.
If he’s convicted, the arrested phony could face 21 years in prison.
For a story about a more well-behaved Catholic, here’s a story about a nun who saved the life of a man trapped under a tree near her abbey.