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Sham Priest Accused Of Swindling $53,000 With Fake Trips To See The Pope

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A man who allegedly posed as a Catholic priest for years is accused of swindling over $50,000 from church-goers.

Erwin Mena, 59, was arrested on Tuesday in Elysian Park on charges of pretending to be a priest at two L.A. churches and selling fake trips to see Pope Francis, according to the L.A. Times. Police say that Mena, who also went by Menacastro, swindled parishioners at Saint Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Highland Park and Saint Bernard Catholic Church in Glassell Park, where he officiated ceremonies including baptisms, funerals, confessions, and a marriage.

Mena is charged with 22 felonies, including grand theft and filing false documents, as well as 8 misdemeanors, and will be arraigned in court today. Police say he convinced over two dozen people to give him between $500 and $1,000 each to cover airfare and lodging to see the Pope in New York and Philadelphia last year. But those who signed up for the trip told the Times that their interactions with Mena became increasingly suspicious as he urged them to have patience with the details of the trips. In early June of 2015 the pastor of Saint Ignatius attempted to obtain credentials from Mena, who had been serving as a substitute priest since January. After Mena stalled and credentials couldn't be found, the pastor reported him to the police who began an investigation and met with the swindled church goers. Mena is said to have collected around $53,000, according to the L.A. County District Attorney.

Church officials say Mena has been on a list of 95 unauthorized priests and deacons kept by the archdiocese in L.A. since the list was created in 2008. The list, however, was not checked by Saint Ignatius because Mena was serving as a substitute. It's the same reason the church says they didn't immediately ask for credentials and a reference letter from his bishop, police say.

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In addition to the phony Pope visits, Mena is also said to have sold a video about Pope Francis after mass for $25, along with a book he claimed that he wrote, entitled "Confessions of a Renegade Catholic Priest," according to court documents. Investigators have now concluded that Mena pirated the video from a recording done in Madrid.

Mena is also believed to have pretended to be a priest since the mid-1990s at parishes and prayer groups San Bernardino, Stockton, Fresno and Orange County, according to church officials. Whenever the archdiocese found out about Mena's activities, he would disappear.

Anyone with information about Erwin Mena is asked to contact LAPD Detective Guevara at (213) 486-6630, or visit LAPDOnline.org.