The fake priest who was arrested in California this week had been posing as a Catholic priest since the mid-1990s. For those who were married by the priest, does this mean they have been living together as a married couple illegally – at least in front of the church’s eyes?
Tuesday’s arrest of the fake priest, 59-year-old Erwin Mena, is sending a shockwave through the Catholic communities in California, according to a February 3 KCRA report. Mena conducted his illegal activities at parishes or prayer groups in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Stockton, Fresno and Orange counties.
For the past 20 years, Mena managed to disappear before any authorities of the Roman Catholic Church could take action. That is until Tuesday, when Los Angeles officers finally caught the conman in Elysian Park.
According to LAPD Det. Gary Guevara, Mena is accused of suspicion of grand theft when selling bogus trip tickets to see Pope Francis during his Philadelphia and New York Trip last year. “He has been charged with 22 felonies and 8 misdemeanors, according to a criminal complaint filed by the L.A. County district attorney’s office.”
For the affected Catholic communities in California, having been conned out of money is devastating, but having been married by a fake priest or having been baptized has lifelong consequences. Mena is being accused of having conducted numerous mass celebrations, baptisms, funerals, confessions, and at least one marriage.
While the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is trying to prevent fake priests and deacons from taking advantage of their community members, Mena’s way of getting around those preventions was to appear when a church needed a substitute priest.
Parishioners who met Mena describe him as a friendly “priest” who showed charm and good humor:
“He smiled, talked about how good things were. There was never anything negative. He was not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher. We had always been raised not to question authority figures. He’s a priest – what he said is holy writ. We never imagined he was a phony.”
Some parishioners paid Mena more than $950 dollars in cash for the alleged trip to see Pope Francis. Others loaned him more than $16,000 to produce CDs about Pope Francis. Of course, the CDs were as fake (pirated) as the priest himself.
When Mena was arrested on Tuesday, he had no comments for the Los Angeles Times. Doris Benavides, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles archdiocese, said after the fake priest was arrested that some victims have been reimbursed for their money and that those who received sacraments from him can receive them again.