Feds: Starkville priest lied about cancer in scam to raise money
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Federal investigators said they have probable cause to believe a Mississippi priest fraudulently received donations by falsely telling people he had cancer and that his diocese knew that and concealed it.
The allegations came in an affidavit written by a Department of Homeland Security special agent that was attached to an application for a search warrant that targeted the offices of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. The application was dated Nov. 6 and unsealed Friday.
The affidavit says the Starkville priest falsely told people that he had cancer when he had actually been diagnosed with HIV. The Catholic Diocese of Jackson spread the priest’s story about cancer in an email to other priests, and the federal agent wrote that he believed the email was sent to hide the priest’s HIV diagnosis and to protect the diocese from negative publicity.
The affidavit says agents met with five confidential sources who have years of experience with the diocese and that the agents corroborated the information they provided.
The diocese said in a statement that it is cooperating with the investigation.
No one has been charged in the case. The Associated Press isn’t naming the priest because he hasn’t been charged.
The priest was hospitalized in late 2014 for breathing trouble and shortly after being discharged he told a law enforcement confidential source that he had a rare form of cancer, Walden Strom’s macroglobulinemia lymphoma. The priest then announced several times from the pulpit that he was going to Canada for treatment, the affidavit says.
But investigators learned from a confidential source that the priest didn’t actually have cancer and instead had been diagnosed with HIV in 2014. Authorities said they then confirmed that by subpoenaing the priest’s medical records.
The diocese sent an email from the priest to other priests in the diocese saying he had cancer and would be leaving for several months for treatment. But the affidavit says the priest actually went to the Southdown Institute of Toronto, which the diocese says “was founded specifically to address the needs of religious and clergy around mental health and addiction,” the affidavit says.
The priest also started a GoFundMe account, ostensibly to raise money to cover his medical expenses, the affidavit says. Instead, the agent wrote, the priest spent the donated funds largely on personal expenses with none of the withdrawals being spent on medical expenses.
The affidavit says the priest also raised funds from parishioners for an orphanage in Mexico but instead used the money for personal expenses. He also defrauded parishioners by raising money he said was to be used to build a chapel in Mexico, going so far as to have an architect in Mississippi draw up plans, the affidavit said.