Man accused of posing as a priest and stealing from parishioners has been arrested

Erwin MenaLA Police Department

A man who has posed as a priest since the mid 1990s, calling himself "Padre" and celebrating sacraments, was arrested for grand theft on Tuesday, according to police.

Officers arrested Erwin Mena, 59, on Tuesday in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. He had stolen thousands of dollars from parishioners by selling fake trips to see Pope Francis last year, according to court documents.

A criminal complaint filed by the LA County district attorney's office said he has been charged with 22 felonies and eight misdemeanors, the LA Times reported.

In early June 2015, the pastor of St Ignatius of Loyola parish in Highland Park – where Mena had been posing as a priest for five months – reported him to police.

Before being arrested, Mena had avoided being caught many times. He would travel around, moving between parishes whenever the archdiocese caught wind of his behaviour, an affidavit by LAPD Detective Guevara said.

Despite having been on the list of unaurthorised priests and deacons since its creation in 2008, Mena had avoided repercussions for his actions until now.

When a priest arrives in a new diocese he must present his credentials, Sister Terry Davis, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Stockton, said.

"This request is accompanied by a letter from his bishop and identification that he is who he says he is. That has to check out before he operates."

Mena avoided this protocol by finding a parish that needed a substitute, according to Guevara. He was allowed to minister at the church without reference to the list, said spokeswoman for the LA archdiocese, Doris Benavides.

During his time posing as a priest, Mena allegedly extorted people out of thousands of pounds.

An organisation loaned him $16,000 to record and produce CDs about Pope Francis, Guevara said. In reality, investigators found that Mena had simply pirated a video which was filmed in Madrid.

He also got people to sign up to and pay for an imaginary trip to see Pope Francis when he was visiting New York and Philadelphia, Guevara said. Mena solicited between $500 and $1,000 from more than 24 parishioners and others.

One complainant, Michelle Rodriguez, gave Mena $900 in cash for the trip, having learnt about it from a close friend who knew Mena.

"We were thinking, 'Oh, we'll have this great time in New York. We'll see the Pope and it will be a great experience,'" said Rodriguez.

However, she became suspicious when Mena refused to give her details of the trip whenever she asked.

"He used us, he stole from us, and that's it," she said.

Some of Mena's alleged victims have been reimbursed by the archdiocese and any witnesses in the criminal case could be reimbursed after it is concluded, Benavides said.