Former Priest Gets Life
Tyler Morning Telegraph
October 23, 2003
After a jury sentenced a Colombian national to life in prison Thursday for raping a 13-year-old altar girl while he was a priest in a Tyler Catholic church, the victim told her assailant she hated him for destroying her life, and thanked jurors for giving it back to her.
Some members of the panel smiled at the victim, now 21, as they left the courtroom after two days of emotional testimony about the repeated sexual abuse perpetrated by Gustavo Cuello, who then went on the lam for seven years to avoid prison time.
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated four and a half hours before assessing the maximum life term and a $5,000 fine for Cuello, who had pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child.
Cuello, 40, was removed from the priesthood after his 1997 arrest for the systematic abuse of the victim in his church office at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a predominantly Hispanic Catholic sanctuary.
Having bonded out of jail with money raised by the congregation, Cuello fled to Ecuador and was married with two daughters when FBI agents recaptured him this July.
In a courtroom full of the same supporters who bailed her attacker out of jail and blamed the victim, calling her "the whore who raped the Catholic priest," the young woman made a compelling impact statement from the witness stand after the verdict was read.
She thanked the jury "for the decision you made for me and my family. After seven years, I can finally live in peace because this monster is going away.
"And to everyone supporting him, all I have is hate for you," the victim yelled. "I hope this never happens to any of your kids. I hate this man for destroying my life."
Cuello faced the courtroom floor as the victim told him in English and Spanish, "Look at me, Gustavo. You destroyed everything I had in my life. I hope and pray to God this never happens to your daughters and I hope you never see them again."
Her mother, in an additional impact testimony, also commanded Cuello to "look at me" as he continued to stare at the floor.
"We are going to start a new life today after seven years of fear. Thank you to the court, the jury," her mother said.
The victim's father angrily communicated his feelings in Spanish to the perpetrator, a former friend whom he took into his home. The father refused to translate his speech afterward.
Prosecutors pushed for a life sentence for the last two weeks. In an initial proceeding, state District Judge Cynthia Kent sentenced Cuello to 50 years in prison but he rejected that punishment and took his case to a jury.
He will be eligible for parole after serving 30 years.
Defense attorney J. Warren St. John of Fort Worth, hired with help from the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, did not recommend a sentence but told the jury his client did not deserve life in prison. St. John blamed Cuello's crime on misguided love he had for the victim, and called their more than 20 sexual encounters in the church before Wednesday and Sunday services "a genuine relationship," yet "sickening."
From a confession Cuello gave FBI agents, Smith County Assistant District Attorney April Sikes calculated that Cuello sexually assaulted the victim at least 24 times on an air mattress in his office. In her closing argument, Mrs. Sikes shouted "rape" 24 times while staring at the defendant.
The prosecutor recalled the victim's family took Cuello into their home when he arrived in Tyler from South America in 1996 to lead the church her father helped build, then put the 13-year-old girl ahead of other children in church activities.
"That beautiful family there made him a part of their life, and how proud they must have been when the messenger of God chose (the victim) to be the Virgin in the Christmas play," Mrs. Sikes said. "How proud they must have been when she was an altar girl, and how completely sick they must have become when they found out it was all a lie - it was for that monster.
"They gave him everything and he took the most precious thing they had, and why? Because he chose to groom that beautiful child. For what? His own sick sexual gratification," Mrs. Sikes continued.
Pointing to Cuello's crowd of followers in the courtroom, she said, "How dare he not set them straight, and how dare they support a monster."
Given the way fellow parishioners treated her after she reported sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, the young woman said after the trial she understands why it's taken decades for some victims of pedophile priests across the nation to come forward.
"This should never, never happen, but I'm glad I reported it because now that the jury sent him away, I can find peace," the young woman said. "The message here is if this happens to you, you can come out and tell the truth."
She said she expected the church congregation to support her in 1997 when she reported the abuse.
"I was so close to those people. It hurt that my own community wouldn't be there to help me," she said. "I hope to God one day those people will come to me and say they are sorry. If they do, I'll forgive them."
In addition to her parents, the victim's boyfriend has been with her throughout the trial, and she credits him with helping to chase away the demons Cuello left with her.
"I love this guy. He's treated me with more respect than anyone else," she said.
A member of the Catholic Church, Judge Kent would not comment about overseeing the only pedophile priest case prosecuted in Smith County.
But after the trial, she told the victim and her family the case was not about religion. Rather, it was about a horrible crime.
"You see a lot in this courtroom, a lot of suffering, drugs, poverty, hatred, violence and crime," Judge Kent said. "You all have testified about how you lost your faith in the Catholic Church, but you still have faith in God and the gospel. This was not a case about Catholicism or the Catholic Church."
Recalling Troup pastor Mike Tabb, who pleaded guilty to the murder of his wife, Judge Kent said, "Not too many weeks ago, another pastor in a Protestant church was sentenced to life for brutally beating his wife."
After more than 18 years on the bench, Judge Kent said, "I see a lot of crying, hatred and sadness."
She advised the victim and her family to try to "let go of the anger and hatred, and reflect on the good things."
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