Bogus California priest who fleeced flock behind bars

Los Angeles - A bogus California priest who allegedly swindled his flock of thousands of dollars while officiating at masses, weddings and funerals, will now have to atone for his "sins" before a judge.

Erwin Mena, 59, who went by the name "Padre," appeared in court on Wednesday to face a 30-count criminal complaint that includes charges that he sold parishioners at two Los Angeles churches fake trips to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia and New York last year.

He also sold parishioners CDs that he recorded and a book he claimed to have written entitled "Confessions of A Renegade Catholic Priest." In total, authorities say he pocketed around US$53,000 (S$75,024) from his scheme, which was uncovered after church members never got their trip to see the pope and alerted the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Church officials say that Mena since the mid 1990s has misrepresented himself as a priest and his name was on a list of unauthorized priests operating across the nation.

However, he managed to pose as a man of the cloth in at least two parishes in the Los Angeles area, including one that needed a substitute priest and that failed to check his credentials.

"We are grateful to the Los Angeles Police Department for working to ensure that Erwin Mena was brought to justice," the archdiocese said in a statement.

"Our prayers go out to all the victims of his scam." Mena was ordered held on Wednesday in lieu of US$100,000 bail pending his arraignment on February 24.

If convicted he faces up to 21 years in prison.

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