December 4, 2018 10:35:31 AM
The Jackson Catholic Diocese has confirmed that Father Lenin Vargas is being removed from the ministry staff at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville.
His removal and replacement, announced Sunday at the church, comes in the wake of a federal investigation into Vargas.
Vargas is accused of defrauding his parishioners and others who donated in a GoFundMe campaign of tens of thousands of dollars for what he claimed was cancer treatment after being diagnosed with HIV and instead using donated funds for personal expenses.
He's also been accused of raising money for a supposed chapel and orphanage in Mexico and using those funds on personal expenses, including a recurring expense at a dating website that caters to people who are HIV-positive.
Maureen Smith, a spokesperson with the Jackson Diocese, confirmed Vargas' removal to The Dispatch on Monday.
Smith said the announcement is part of a series of reassignments across the state, including three priests who have announced retirement and four who are moving to new parishes.
She said the diocese is moving Father Jason Johnston, of St. Frances of Assisi parish in Madison, to St. Joseph as the parochial vicar, which is an associate pastor role. Johnston's assignment is effective Jan. 9, according to Smith.
While Smith said it is hard to say whether the reassignment at the St. Joseph parish would have happened without the investigation, she did acknowledge it may have played a role in the decision.
Father Jeffrey Waldrep, of Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus, has been serving as St. Joseph's administrator during the investigation, and Smith said he will continue to serve in that role. Father Rusty Vincent, who has been overseeing pastoral ministry at St. Joseph as well as Corpus Christi in Macon, has been reassigned to St. Paul parish in Vicksburg.
Waldrep and Johnston will be splitting duties Vargas held as lead pastor.
Despite the moves, Smith said Vargas is still restricted from public ministerial duties while the investigation continues.
"He's removed from public ministry during the ongoing investigation," Smith said. "That means he cannot act. He's not out in public at all."
Agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raided the Jackson Diocese on Nov. 7. Homeland Security agent William G. Childers lays out the accusations against Vargas in a 37-page affidavit.
GoFundMe has since announced it will issue refunds for those who donated to Vargas' campaign.
So far, no formal charges have been filed against Vargas, according to online case documents. Smith also said the diocese has not been made aware of any formal charges or further progress in the investigation.
Pastoral changes across the state, including the changes at St. Joseph, will be announced Friday in Mississippi Catholic publication, Smith said.
Attempts to contact several members and administration with St. Joseph were unsuccessful on Monday.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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