LOS ANGELES, Calif. (FOX 11) - Erwin Mena, a Southern California man who church officials say pretended to be a priest for more than 20 years, this morning pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft in a deal with prosecutors that will see Mena spend one year in jail.
He will also be on probation for one year and was ordered to pay $53,000 in retribution to his victims. If, as prosecutors suspect, he is not a legal U.S. citizen, Mena will be deported.
According to prosecutors, Mena defrauded parishioners out of thousands for a phony trip to visit the Pope last summer.
Church officials say Mena celebrated masses at Catholic churches across Southern and Central California since the 1990's, even holding nights of confession and funeral services.
From Zohreen Adamjee:
A man who masqueraded as a Roman Catholic priest and bilked thousands of dollars from parishioners appeared in court Wednesday..
Erwin Mena was known as Father Mena for nearly 20 years and pleaded guilty to grand theft.
Since the 1990's, church officials say he celebrated mass at Catholic churches throughout L.A.
But he's not a priest, he used religion to rip off believers.
His last ploy involved selling tickets to New York and Philadelphia to visit Pope Francis during his last tour.
Detectives say that scam netted Mena more than $15,000. The money was mostly taken from low income families.
A former parishioner says she fears some won't regain trust in the church.
"People are going to be afraid to come to the church - any church," says Victoria Cuevas.
The L.A. District Attorney says through the years, the phony priest swindled believers out of nearly 54 thousand dollars.
Mena faced 28 counts of theft, perjury and practicing medicine without a license.
He accepted a plea agreement - pleading guilty to one count of grand theft.
He will have to pay nearly 54 thousand dollars in restitution to the victims.
One current parishioner doesn't think it's enough, but says it isn't the last judge he will face.
"God is the one who will judge him when he die - whatever he has to pay," says Maria Lizaola.
Mena will do one year in jail and one year mandatory probation.
Prosecutors say they suspect Mena isn't a U.S. citizen.
If that's true, he could be deported.