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Roman Catholic diocese warns fake priests are preying on California parishioners

They're charging people "thousands and thousands" of dollars to perform sacraments the church provides for nominal fees.
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A Roman Catholic diocese in California is warning its flock to beware of wolves in priestly clothes.

The Diocese of Stockton sent out an alert over the weekend to other churches to be on the lookout for people "purporting to be Spanish-speaking Catholic bishops and priests" who charge "exorbitant fees for celebrating the sacraments, teaching classes, and issuing certificates."

"These imposters are misappropriating the identities of genuine priests in Mexico and conducting unauthorized celebrations of baptism, confirmation, First Communion, and house blessings under false pretenses," the diocese said in a news release

When challenged, the phony clerics "resort to intimidation tactics against anyone questioning their identity or authority, often threatening legal action for defamation, although these threats lack substance," the diocese said.

Diocesan spokesperson Erin Haight told NBC News the bogus clerics "are charging these poor people thousands and thousands of dollars for things like health blessings for communions and confirmations."

"They're even charging people to use the seats they provide at these ceremonies," Haight said. "The Catholic Church would never do that."

Haight said the diocese reported the scams to police in Modesto after it got about a half-dozen calls from parishioners "asking us if these were people we know."

But when the diocese reached out to law enforcement, Haight said, it was told that only the people who were victimized by the imposters could file complaints and initiate investigations.

"The problem is these knuckleheads are preying on undocumented immigrants, migrant workers, people who might be afraid to go to law enforcement," Haight said. "So we decided to get the word out so more people aren't victimized."

Sharon Bear, a Modesto police spokesperson, confirmed that the Diocese of Stockton has been in touch with the department about the phony priests but that no active investigation is underway because, so far, nobody has filed a complaint.

"We advised them to notify the other churches in the area and encourage people who have been harmed to contact us," Bear said. "There's not much more we can do at this point."

In the news release, the diocese warned: "The imposters in Modesto have been using the names of legitimate priests in Mexico. Two confirmed identities being exploited are Father José Adán González Estrada and Bishop Raúl Gómez González."

Haight said, "These are real priests, but they're in Mexico, not here." She added that the diocese has been in touch with the Archdiocese of Toluca in Mexico and warned it about the scam.

The Archdiocese of Toluca, as well as the priests who are being impersonated, did not immediately respond for comment.

In closing, Diocese of Stockton gave its members some additional advice in case they encounter priests who offer to perform sacraments for money.

"With few exceptions, Catholic sacraments are typically administered within Catholic churches," the diocesan release says. "Celebrations of baptism, confirmation, and First Communion in outdoor locations like parks are not aligned with established Catholic practices."