Phony Catholic priest sentenced again to jail in Los Angeles: ‘You can’t go into a church and pretend’
A man who was convicted of posing as a Roman Catholic priest and selling bogus trips to see Pope Francis returned to court on Friday after investigators discovered that once out of jail, he resumed trying to pass himself off as a man of the cloth.
Erwin Mena, the judge said, was back to doing the same thing he wasn’t supposed to be doing.
Mena, 60, had been convicted in February of grand theft in connection with his scheme to sell fake trips to see the pontiff and he got out of jail in July. LAPD Det. Gary Guevara said he arrested Mena on Nov. 2 after confirming he posed as a priest at a church in the Arts District.
With his arms shackled behind his back, Mena appeared Friday in a downtown courtroom and admitted to violating the terms of his probation.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Frederick N. Wapner castigated Mena for his dishonesty and sentenced him to 264 days in County Jail.
The judge also imposed a special protective order that, upon his release, bars Mena from coming within 100 feet of an Archdiocese of Los Angeles facility.
“You can’t go into a church and pretend you’re a priest,” Wapner told Mena, who was wearing black glasses and blue scrubs issued to jail inmates.
“That’s what you got convicted for and when you got out, you did the same thing.”
Mena’s public defender, Denise Daniels, objected to such a broad protective order and argued that it put her client in jeopardy since he was being followed by television news reporters. She said Mena could unknowingly violate the terms of the order.
“You could be walking next to a Catholic archdiocese location and not even know it,” Daniels added.
The judge disagreed and also rejected Mena’s request to get a week out of jail. Mena had wanted a week out of custody to settle his personal affairs, like the storage of his car and other possessions, Daniels said.
“I don’t trust him,” Wapner said. “I don’t believe him when he says he’s going to come back [to jail]. …. He should have thought of that before he started lying to people.”
According to an affidavit filed by Guevara, Mena posed as a priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Highland Park for about five months starting in January 2015.
Parishioners said he delivered uplifting sermons, and he carried out the typical duties of a priest, such as officiating baptisms, confession, funerals and weekly Mass. He also officiated one Mass at St. Bernard parish in nearby Glassell Park, according to the church’s pastor.
Police said that Mena’s clerical role was a ruse. Since 2008, Mena has been on a list of people who are not authorized to perform the duties of a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, according to a diocesan spokeswoman.
Mena’s biggest scam, police contended, was selling phony trips to see the pontiff during his visit last fall to New York and Philadelphia. The trips cost $500 to $1,000, which Mena collected from more than two dozen people.
Michelle Rodriguez, a legal secretary, said she paid more than $900 cash for her spot on the trip — and realizing it was bogus left her feeling betrayed.
“He used us, he stole from us, and that’s it,” Rodriguez said.
LAPD detectives arrested Mena on Feb. 2 in Elysian Park. Weeks later, he pleaded guilty to a felony count of grand theft, and more than two dozen other counts — mostly misdemeanor and felony theft charges — were dismissed as part of a plea agreement.
Mena was sentenced to one year in jail but released early on July 25.
Police arrested him in November after he allegedly posed at St. Francis Xavier Church in the Arts District. Guevara said that after visiting the parish, Mena left a note behind signed, “Father Edwin Lima.”
A secretary became suspicious and alerted the archdiocese. That day, police were notified of Mena’s appearance, Guevara said.
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