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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I'd like to warn your readers about something that happened to me. Perhaps it will save them the embarrassment I caused myself.

My friend "Emily" met a priest while walking her dog in a neighborhood park. "Father Conway" came across as friendly and courteous. He and Emily became friends. From what Emily told me, he loves his ministry and is very knowledgeable about church doctrine, the sacraments and different parishes in our area. He is not a full-time priest because he has a full-time job. He doesn't live at a rectory; he has his own apartment. I accepted that, believing the church of his choice didn't have an opening available and that he wanted to work full-time and fill in for vacationing priests.

When I married last year, he performed the ceremony. My fiancé, now my husband, wanted a simple wedding. I wasn't attending church on a regular basis. Father Conway offered to perform the ceremony at the catering hall. We paid $150. We had premarital counseling at his apartment.

Everything went off without a hitch, until one day I met a "Father Reynolds" on a flight back from Florida. His parish is near my home. I began telling him about Father Conway, and he said he had never heard of him. About two weeks after, I received a call from Father Reynolds. He told me there's no record of any Father Conway in the diocese or with any of the neighboring dioceses.

When Emily and I asked Father Conway about his background, he became evasive. We asked him where he went to college and seminary school and when he graduated. The seminary and the university had no such graduate in their records. Father Reynolds knew several professors at the seminary that Father Conway claimed to have graduated from. His professors had never heard of him, either. Father Conway was nothing but a fraud.

When I thought about it, I realized that Father Conway never mentioned other priests, never invited Emily or me to any of the Masses he said he performed, never discussed his school days at the seminary or his early years as a young priest. However, he did talk incessantly about how much he had spent on his priestly garments, statues, gold candlestick holders and other religious articles.

Next time I meet a man of the cloth who doesn't live at the rectory, I'll check his background and speak to the priest he fills in for. I'll call the headquarters that the priest/minister answers to. Had I done that, I would not have been taken in by an impostor. -- WISER NOW IN MASSACHUSETTS

DEAR WISER NOW: What a mess! I took your problem to an indisputably legitimate man of the cloth, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles. His response:

DEAR ABBY: Please permit me to answer "Wiser Now in Massachusetts":

DEAR WISER NOW: I am very sorry that you were victimized by a man pretending to be a Catholic priest and I recommend you do two things in the aftermath of this fraud.

First, contact the district attorney in your jurisdiction to see if "Father Conway" has violated any civil laws. If he is not authorized to officiate at weddings by the state, he may be liable to criminal prosecution.

Second, if you have not already done so, make an appointment with your parish priest to have your marriage blessed by the church. This should not be a complicated matter, and I am sure your parish priest will be very sympathetic to your plight.

Your experience highlights the importance of the local parish in the life of every Catholic. Always approach your parish priest for the sacraments, even when you would like a priest from outside the parish to witness a marriage or to baptize a child. The parish priest will be able to ensure that a visiting priest has the proper faculties and delegation from competent church authorities.

Wishing God's blessing on you and your groom, I am ... CARDINAL ROGER MAHONY, ARCHBISHOP OF LOS ANGELES

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