For months, Erwin Mena donned vestments, called himself “Padre,” and convinced Southern California Catholics that he was a priest, police say.
He was good at it, too, reportedly. He attended seminary in El Salvador for a time years ago before dropping out, so he was able to convincingly officiate Masses, funerals, and even at least one wedding. He had a likeable personality and said all the right things.
On Tuesday, he was arrested by Los Angeles police for allegedly impersonating a Roman Catholic priest and on suspicion of grand theft. Mena allegedly conned parishioners into buying thousands of dollars’ worth of fake tickets to see Pope Francis in the fall, and he would sell religious CDs and books only to line his own pockets with the profit. 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 5 or 6 months beginning in January of last year, Mena, who would also go by Menacastro, showed up at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Highland Park, claiming to be a visiting priest covering for the pastor, who was on vacation, according to police reports.
When priests assist at parishes for any significant length of time (more than one Mass), they have to file the appropriate paperwork to prove their priestly credentials. LAPD Det. Gary Guevara told CNA that Mena’s paperwork would sporadically trickle in, enough to raise suspicions but not completely sound the alarm for the parish secretary.
“Some of it was coming in, he would say everything’s in San Bernardino, so it was trickling in,” Guevara said.
During his time in the archdiocese, Mena would also travel around from parish to parish, selling $25 videos and fundraising for a project he said he was working on - producing CDs about Pope Francis, the Los Angeles Times reports. He also reportedly asked for anywhere from $500-$1,000 from parishioners for a package deal trip to see Pope Francis during his U.S. visit. The cost supposedly included lodging at convents and airfare, and more than two dozen people signed up.
Michelle Rodriguez, who heard about the trip from a friend who would host Mena for dinner, originally thought it sounded like a great deal and gave him more than $900 in cash. But when she pressed Mena for details about the trip, he would dodge the specifics, assuring her that she just needed to be patient.
Now, she is among those who have filed criminal complaints against Mena.
“He used us, he stole from us, and that's it,” Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times.
When a priest approached Mena about his production project, he had an explanation — he claimed he was a Paulist priest.
It’s clear he had done his homework, Guevara said, because Paulists specifically focus on evangelization through media.
“Everything he said always made sense,” Guevara said, “So it was kind of like the perfect storm in that nobody wanted to pull the trigger, as far as confronting him.” He always had enough of an explanation to be plausible, and people generally liked him.
“There were people who thought he was a great priest, that they really liked him, he looked like a priest, he walked like a priest, he could talk like a priest all the way to the very end,” Guevara added.
But Mena couldn’t fool what Guevara called the “professional Church ladies.” It was a feast day with particular Mass parts, and Mena just wasn’t getting it right, he said.
“It was a complicated Mass that some of the real professional church ladies have memorized, and literally the jig was all up,” Guevara said.
“He was screwing up and everybody was like, what’s going on here?”
Within hours, phone calls were being made, and the archdiocese was officially alerted of Mena’s suspicious activities. Soon after, the archdiocese reported him to the police. “They were collecting information and they were very transparent about it,” Guevara said. “They contacted the police department really quickly and provided us with everything we needed, so it was a really good partnership with us and them.”
It seems that Mena may even be a repeat offender — Guevara said that according to Archdiocesan documents, there were issues with Mena as far back as the 1990s. His name has been on a list of unauthorized priests and deacons since 2008, when the record was started. The current investigation is only focusing on his recent alleged transgressions.
It’s important to note that Mena was arrested because he was allegedly masquerading as a Roman Catholic priest, Guevara said. A defrocked or retired priest could theoretically start up their own “storefront church” with a ministry certificate from the internet, but he said Mena’s offense is specifically that he pretended to be a Roman Catholic, sacrament-distributing priest.
The archdiocese has already reimbursed some of Mena’s alleged victims, and more could be reimbursed at the conclusion of the case. Because of the nature of the ongoing criminal investigation, the archdiocese could not provide much further comment, but asked that anyone with additional information come forward.
“We are grateful to the Los Angeles Police Department for working to ensure that Erwin Mena was brought to justice. Our prayers go out to all the victims of his scam. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is committed to providing pastoral care and sacramental support to the victims and others impacted by this situation,” the Archdiocese said in a statement.
“If anyone in the Archdiocese has any questions regarding the validity of any priest’s credentials, or the credentials of any employee of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, please call the Archdiocese Catholic Center, at (213) 637-7000.”