Former priest changes plea in 4-year-old case of sexually assaulting Fresno parishioners

Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]

March 1, 2024

By Robert Rodriguez, The Fresno Bee

A former Anglican priest who is charged with sexually assaulting nearly a dozen male members of his Fresno parish under the guise of spiritual healing has agreed to a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Jesus Antonio Castaneda Serna, 56, has pleaded no contest to nine counts of sexual assault and one count of attempting to prevent a witness from testifying. The remaining 12 counts will be dropped.

Serna, who headed the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe church in Fresno, was arrested in February 2019 and accused of preying on his male parishioners, many whom were not documented and had sought help with personal problems.

Serna convinced them that by fondling their genitals he was performing a spiritual ritual to help overcome their problems.

He was charged with 22 counts of sexual assault and was facing 26 years and six months in prison.

But the case lagged in the court system for four years, due partly to the COVID-19 pandemic, until recently with Serna’s change of plea.

Serna is scheduled to be sentenced April 12 in Dept. 33. And it remains to be seen how much jail time, if any, Judge Charles Lee will give him.

As part of his plea agreement, the court agreed to a lid of no more than 10 years in prison. Lee, however, has indicated the more likely scenario is probation with up to a year in jail.

The judge also ordered Serna to be sent for a 90-day diagnostic evaluation at the California Department of Corrections to determine if he is a suitable candidate for prison or probation.

His attorney Ralph Torres was pleased with the outcome.

“This does involve some jail time and considering the circumstances, I think something was necessary,” Torres said. “It’s a good resolution.”

Prosecutor Kelly Smith argued Serna’s alleged crimes were appalling given he used his position as a religious leader to take advantage of parishoners.

“Defendant deserves no mercy from this Court, from his victims, from the public, or from his remaining parishioners that were and are sadly fooled by this wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Smith wrote in a motion to the court. “Defendant shattered the lives of 10 parishioners, many of whom will never be able to trust any figure of authority within a church setting again.”

Serna’s history as a religious leader has been marked by allegations of misconduct.

The Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin relieved Serna of his pastoral and priestly ministry in October 2017 after Bishop Eric Menees received credible information Serna had committed sexual misconduct.

Serna was officially stripped of his duties on Nov. 24, 2017.