Los Banos priest under investigation moved out of area

By Rob Parsons
Modesto Bee
August 19, 2014

A Los Banos Catholic priest under investigation for possible sex crimes involving a teenager has been moved to an undisclosed location where there are no children present, a Catholic church official said Tuesday.

The Rev. Robert E. Gamel was placed on paid administrative leave early Friday, the morning after allegations surfaced involving a teenage church member, said Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

“There was no way we could’ve acted any sooner on the information,” Dominguez told the Merced Sun-Star in a telephone interview.

Gamel, 64, has not been arrested or formally accused of any wrongdoing by law enforcement, the Los Banos Police Department said Tuesday. “The detectives are still continuing their investigation,” Cmdr. Jason Hedden said, “and we’re still hoping for anyone from the public with information to come forward.”

The Rev. Joe Baca has been appointed interim administrator of the Los Banos parish for an indefinite period of time.

Gamel has been a priest at St. Joseph’s Church since 2009. He joined the priesthood in 1990. “Since then, he has always been a priest in good standing,” Dominguez said. This incident marks the first time the church has investigated Gamel for any alleged wrongdoing, Dominguez confirmed.

Efforts to reach Gamel for comment have been unsuccessful.

In a prepared statement, the diocese pledged to cooperate fully with police and said their own internal inquiry would come after law enforcement concludes its investigation. Church officials also were careful to note that all facts in the case have yet to come to light and urged people to avoid rushing to any judgments.

“An administrative leave does not carry with it any presumption of guilt. It is designed to protect the individual from further accusations pending the outcome of the investigation, to protect the public from the possibility of further wrongdoing, avoidance of scandal, and to ensure that the integrity of the investigation and the judicial processes, if applicable, are not compromised,” the diocese said in the statement.

A parent on Thursday evening contacted the diocese in Fresno and church officials met with the family in Los Banos that same night. After speaking with the teenager’s family and Gamel, church officials filed a police report and formally suspended Gamel the following morning, Dominguez said.

Los Banos police have not elaborated on many details of the investigation, but have said the accusations involve possible “Internet-related sex crimes.”

Police detectives on Friday served a search warrant at the St. Joseph’s rectory, seizing computer equipment and other potential evidence. The Sun-Star on Tuesday filed a formal request for copies of the search warrant and affidavit with the Merced Superior Court clerk’s office in Los Banos.

Dominguez said the church’s desire for transparency prompted them to release Gamel’s name in connection with the investigation, as well as concern for the reputations of other priests in Los Banos who have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

“We really want to defuse gossip as much as possible in this situation and only provide people with accurate information,” Dominguez said. “We want to make sure we are as transparent as possible for the good of the parish community and for the good of the whole community.”

Many Los Banos residents were reluctant to discuss the allegations against Gamel, who is more commonly known around town as “Father Bob.”

Patrons eating lunch Tuesday at Los Banos Drug on J and Sixth streets discussed the news, but declined to comment publicly. Gamel is a regular at the popular lunch spot in downtown Los Banos. One man, who described Gamel as a friend, said he hopes people will wait for all the facts to come out.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact Detective Eduardo Solis or Sgt. Ivan Mendez at (209) 827-7070, ext. 0.

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