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For years, Catholics in Southern California called Erwin Mena “Padre.” They admired the affable, charming man who celebrated Mass, heard Confession, organized prayer meetings and officiated at least one wedding. He accepted thousands of dollars on behalf of the Catholic Church and church programs — religious CDs, pilgrimages, even a trip to see Pope Francis.
But Mena was never ordained. He wasn’t approved by the archdiocese. And all that money he’d been given in the name of the church was going only to line his pockets, police say. The allegedly phony priest was arrested Tuesday on roughly 30 charges of grand theft, perjury and practicing medicine without a license, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Asked for comment by reporters, he reportedly responded, “Not at this time.” “He used us, he stole from us, and that’s it,” Michelle Rodriguez, one of Mena’s parishioners at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times. He had arrived at the St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in January 2015, claiming to be a substitute priest. He quickly won over churchgoers with his smiles and good-natured sermons. “He smiled, talked about how good things were. There was never anything negative,” Joaquin Oviedo, a retired high school teacher, told the LA Times. “He was not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher.” After spending five months traveling around the parish peddling CDs and a book he claimed to have written, Mena allegedly began offering to arrange a trip to see Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia in September. He solicited between $500 and $1000 from at least two dozen people, saying it would go toward airfare and lodging in convents.
“We were thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll have this great time. … We’ll see the pope and it will be a great experience,’” Rodriguez told the LA Times. But as the pope’s visit approached, and few details about the supposed trip emerged, parishioners became suspicious of the friendly new priest. When parish officials asked him for his credentials, he allegedly evaded their questions. In early June, the pastor of St. Ignatius reported Mena to Los Angeles police, whose detectives met with a lawyer and investigator for the archdiocese. Mena, it turned out, was one of 95 names on a list kept by the archdiocese of people who had posed as priests in the past. According to the Associated Press, Mena has shown up at parishes and prayer groups in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Stockton, Fresno and Orange counties. He always vanished before authorities within the Catholic Church could act. Some of Mena’s alleged victims have been reimbursed, and those who received the sacraments — which include baptism, Confession and marriage, among others — from him can receive them again, Archdiocese of Los Angeles spokeswoman Doris Benavides told the AP. But the feelings of betrayal among churchgoers at St. Ignatius might be more difficult to shake.
“We had always been raised not to question authority figures. He’s a priest — what he said is holy writ,” Oviedo told the LA Times. “We never imagined he was a phony.”