In a concerning revelation, the Diocese of Stockton, California, has issued an urgent warning to its parishioners about fraudsters masquerading as Catholic clergy members. Disseminated this past weekend, the alert underscores a growing scam involving individuals posing as Spanish-speaking Catholic bishops and priests, exploiting the faithful by charging hefty fees for sacramental services and religious instruction.

The diocese explained in a press release that these deceitful actors are impersonating genuine priests from Mexico and illegitimately conducting religious ceremonies such as baptisms, confirmations, First Communions, and house blessings. They deceive the community by leveraging the sanctity and trust traditionally given to the clerical position, further intensifying the potential for harm and betrayal among parishioners.

Alarmingly, when confronted, these counterfeit clerics have shown aggression and have used intimidation strategies, including baseless legal threats, to silence those who question their legitimacy.

Erin Haight, a spokesperson for the diocese, shared distressing details with NBC News, “These fraudsters are extorting thousands of dollars from unsuspecting individuals, capitalizing on spiritual services, and even charging for seating at the fraudulent ceremonies they hold.” Emphasizing the perversion of these acts, Haight assured, “The Catholic Church would never indulge in such practices.”

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The scam came to light when the diocese received multiple inquiries from concerned parishioners trying to validate the authenticity of individuals claiming to be clergy. However, efforts to bring the issue to law enforcement hit a roadblock. According to Haight, the police in Modesto have their hands tied, as they require direct complaints from the victims to initiate any formal investigation.

Highlighting the particularly sinister aspect of these crimes, Haight noted, “These perpetrators target undocumented immigrants and migrant workers, individuals generally hesitant to seek help from authorities due to their precarious status.” In response, the diocese aims to increase awareness to prevent further exploitation.

Corroborating the diocese’s outreach, Sharon Bear, a spokesperson for the Modesto Police Department, confirmed that while they are aware of the situation, the absence of formal victim complaints hinders the launch of an active investigation. She reinforced the department’s readiness to assist those affected and urged victims to come forward.

Adding a layer of deception, the imposters have assumed the identities of clerical figures in Mexico, including Father José Adán González Estrada and Bishop Raúl Gómez González. “These respected individuals serve in Mexico, not here,” Haight clarified, revealing that the diocese is in communication with the Archdiocese of Toluca in Mexico, alerting them to these identity thefts.

While responses from the impersonated parties in Mexico are still pending, the Diocese of Stockton is taking proactive measures to protect its members. They remind the public that legitimate Catholic sacraments are principally performed within the confines of the church. The diocese’s release advises caution, noting, “Unorthodox celebrations of sacraments in non-traditional venues like outdoor parks do not conform with established Catholic protocols.”

This unsettling development has prompted a call for vigilance within the community, underscoring the necessity of confirming the credibility of clergy before engaging in spiritual and financial commitments. The diocese’s proactive stance aims to safeguard its flock’s spiritual integrity and economic welfare in the face of this alarming exploitation.