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The staff of St. Patrick parish had just started their weekly staff meeting on April 10 when a strange man appeared asking to speak with a priest. Minutes later, Father Octavio Cortez, pastor, stepped outside to find the parking lot of his Moreno Valley parish filled with police.

Riverside County detectives were tracking Malin Rostas, a 45-year-old New York man suspected of burglarizing Catholic churches in several states while posing as “Father Martin.” They identified a black sedan matching the description of Rostas’ vehicle at St. Patrick and took him into custody there.

“They apprehended him in the parking lot,” said Fr. Cortez. “I thought it was a traffic stop at first.”

Rostas was arrested on an outstanding felony warrant for burglary in Pennsylvania. He would reportedly present himself in Catholic parishes as a priest and ask for access to the business office or rectory, where he would attempt to steal cash or valuables. “The suspect reportedly gains access to churches by using fraud and deception to commit theft,” reads a press release from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department announcing Rostas’ arrest.

According to Fr. Corez, Rostas told a St. Patrick receptionist that he had an appointment with a priest. He sat in the lobby of the parish office for about 10 minutes before deciding to leave. “He didn’t break into any of the rooms or offices at the parish and he did not steal any money,” Fr. Cortez added.

The April 10 incident at St. Patrick’s wasn’t the first time Rostas had tried to gain access to a parish in the Diocese of San Bernardino. In 2023 he made attempts to access two Riverside parishes, St. Catherine of Alexandria parish and St. Francis de Sales Parish. Rostas appeared in the sacristy at St. Francis de Sales just prior to a weekend Mass and requested access to the parish rectory, recalls Father Alvaro Palacios, parochial vicar.

“He tried to convince me, but I did not believe him,” Fr. Palacios said. “I asked him to leave the premises and he left. Then we put an announcement at the door of the church and the parishioners were alerted.”

Thanks to Fr. Palacios’ efforts Rostas was not able to steal anything from St. Francis de Sales. At St. Catherine’s, Rostas was given access to the parish rectory and security camera footage shows him searching each room. Fortunately, the parish reported that nothing was stolen. Other Catholic churches throughout the west were not as lucky. In April of 2023 Diocese of Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto warned his pastors and leaders of Rostas’ presence in his Diocese and in the neighboring Diocese of Santa Rosa. “We have learned that [Rostas] is likely responsible for stealing $1.7 million from a parish in Oregon,” Bishop Soto’s memo states.

Parish employees should scrutinize strangers requesting donations or access to the church facilities, advises Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Diocesan Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC). Proof of identification should be requested in these cases, she added. Priests who wish to engage in any kind of public ministry in a parish are required to present faculties, written documentation that they are in good standing and fit for ministry.

Episcopal Master of Ceremonies Eddie Garcia, a retired UC Riverside Police Chief who also consults the Diocese on matters of security and public safety, said he is developing a standardized digital form that parishes can use to report the presence of a suspicious person to the Diocese. That will allow the Diocese to proactively warn all its parishes of the potential presence of someone like Rostas, Garcia said.