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  Ex-Priest Admits to Abuse

Tyler Morning Telegraph
October 10, 2003

The former head priest of a Tyler Catholic church admitted in court Friday to the systematic sexual abuse of an adolescent parishioner who testified he convinced her she was willed to him by God, and told her that her parents did not love her.

Six years after Gustavo Cuello fled to South America while free on bond, the ex-priest who confessed to molesting the 13-year-old altar girl in church rooms over a six-month period pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child.

But the courtroom saga is not over for the victim, now 21, and her parents, who testified the ordeal tore their family apart, estranged them from the Catholic religion and forced them to live in fear until Cuello was captured.

"He said if I said something, he would kill my father," the victim recalled. "I heard people say, 'there's the girl who raped the priest in Catholic church.'"

Friday won't be the last time the victim and her parents will have to tell their story in a courtroom.

After more than half a day of testimony Friday, state District Judge Cynthia Kent sentenced 40-year-old Cuello to 50 years in prison. He rejected the offer and elected to go to a jury for punishment, setting the stage for an Oct. 20 sentencing trial.

After his capture in July in Ecuador, Cuello confessed to FBI agents he had sex with the teenage girl at least twice a week for six months inside the church and in his vehicle after befriending her family.

Smith County Chief Felony Prosecutor Matt Bingham asked Judge Kent to assess a life sentence for Cuello, whom he described as "the sickest person I've ever seen, a coward who left after law enforcement got after him, a pedophile, a manipulator - the worst kind."

Defense attorney J. Warren St. John of Fort Worth did not recommend a punishment for his client, but painted a picture of a man with misguided love for a teenager.

St. John picked several parishioners out of a courtroom full of Cuello followers to testify about how he came from South America in 1996 to Tyler's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. They said he then attracted crowds of Hispanics to Masses at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a church built in 1996 in Tyler with the help of parishioners, including the victim's father.

The father testified one man in the courtroom offered him money in 1997 to drop charges against Cuello.

A female parishioner testified she did not believe Cuello molested the girl even though he pleaded guilty to the crime and signed a sworn confession. Another woman said she partially blamed the victim.

Once a devout Catholic who grew up in the church, the victim testified the abuse jaded her trust in religion and she felt further victimized when the parish turned against her.

"I believe in God, I do not believe in priests, preachers, ministers or any religion," she testified.

Since Cuello did not accept the 50-year sentence, Bingham said he plans to bring additional cases to a grand jury. He said evidence suggested Cuello continued a sexual relationship with the victim for 10 months and prosecutors would pick a handful of cases to file in hopes of stacking sentences onto the one a jury assesses later this month.

The victim said she met Cuello for the first time in 1996 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where her father, a Colombian national, had been introduced to the priest. Since Cuello was also from South America, he immediately attached himself to the victim's family, often ate meals at their home and visited almost daily, according to testimony.

When he began having sex with the 13-year-old, Cuello told her she was "chosen by God to do that with him," the young woman told the court.

"He encouraged me to love him and not my parents and that my parents were not going to be there for me but he would," she said. "I still think about it every day and it's hard for me to trust anybody. I remember his breath always smelled like garlic to me."

Her mother testified the day her daughter confided in her about the abuse, she intended to kill Cuello, but stopped herself along the way.

"I said if they ever put Gustavo Cuello in front of me, I'd kill him," the mother said.

She recalled a church counselor approached her after the family filed charges against Cuello and advised her, "pack your things and leave town," and parishioners "knocked on my door, begging us to drop charges."

Meanwhile, her husband "turned crazy," and would say, "nobody touch my kids, nobody talk to my kids."

She said she took her children to a shelter and stayed seven days until her husband sought psychiatric help. He testified about how Cuello came to town "with no friends, no English, no car.

"We helped him, offered friendship, went to his Mass - he was a preacher, it was important we help this person and we help the church," the father said. "He was a holy man, a preacher. He raised Jesus' great body in Mass."

The father said Cuello later turned his daughter against him and told her "bad things about me.

"She didn't want to talk to me sweet no more, or go anyplace with me like she was before," he said. "Before that, our relationship was beautiful. She was my oldest, my first daughter, my first gift from God."

After the man learned what Cuello had done to his daughter and endured parishioners' reactions when he called police, he said his relationships with the church and his family collapsed.

"Church and God was a world I was raised in, I was raised in the Catholic Church, but now I don't believe in church, I don't believe in any priest," the father said.

Even after undergoing counseling, he said he was obsessive and controlling over his second daughter and their relationship remains strained.

"He (Cuello) destroyed my life, he destroyed my feelings, he destroyed everything," the father said. "We're still recovering."

After Cuello was arrested in 1997, he was removed from the priesthood. Authorities said he was married and working in the private sector when he was recaptured in Ecuador.

 
 

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