The priest approached the podium as he does every Sunday ready to give a sermon. Except this time he did not. With a somber look and holding a document in his hand, the priest said, "Instead of a homily, I've been asked by the bishop to read this letter." I perked up a little bit, wondering what the message might be. In a serious tone, the priest began to read the letter.
"Dear people of God, it is with great sorrow that I inform you that Father Robert Gamel was placed on administrative leave on August 15, 2014, after the Diocese of Fresno received a complaint from the parent of a teenage youth."
What? Where was this heading, I thought as my wife slightly poked me in my ribs to see if I was paying attention. I confess my mind wanders at church sometimes. But this time, I was focused.
The priest continued, "Any allegation of abuse involving a member of the clergy with a minor is a serious matter."
The letter by Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of the Diocese of Fresno said the diocese contacted police who then began an investigation into the complaint. A copy of the letter was inserted into the weekly church bulletin.
Here is what is known so far: 64-year-old Father Robert Gamel of St. Joseph Parish in Los Banos is under investigation for allegedly having child pornography on his computer.
"At this point we're still focused on allegations of Internet-related sex crimes," said Los Banos police Cmdr. Jason Hedden.
Police served a search warrant at the rectory on Aug. 15 and seized a computer tower, laptop computer, CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes. According to the affidavit, Gamel told another priest that he had on two occasions seen nude photographs of a teenage parishioner on the Internet.
Hedden said the investigation could take months to conclude because investigators from the Department of Justice must examine voluminous computer files. Gamel remains in the Los Banos area, but according to the diocese, he is living at a location where no children are present.
I placed a call to that location to see if Gamel wished to comment on the investigation and left a message, but so far my call has not been returned.
Since being ordained in 1990, Gamel has been assigned to eight parishes, six of those in Kern County.
According to Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the Diocese of Fresno, Gamel was assigned at one time to: Christ the King in Oildale; St. Joseph Mission in Oildale, which no longer exists; Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bakersfield; St. Ann Church in Ridgecrest; St. Joseph in Boron; and Our Lady of Lourdes in California City.
Dominguez did not know what years Gamel was assigned at each parish. He is the author of two books, "Called to Holiness: The Spiritual Journey to Heaven," and "Miracles from God and Challenges of the World."
I admit I have not gone to Mass every Sunday. But this is the only time I can remember that a letter of this nature has been read in public, at church. Why now, I wondered? Why wasn't this issue first addressed in public years ago when scores of young innocent lives were left traumatized by the criminal acts of clergy? And in this particular case, Gamel has not been arrested or charged with anything.
"The matter is so serious we have a responsibility to notify the public," said Dominguez. "And to invite people and encourage them to come forward if they have more information."
Dominguez said this is not the first time such a letter has been read in parishes in the Diocese of Fresno, which covers Kern County. I don't know if that's good or not. Dominguez points to a church document called Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. First adopted in 2005 and revised in 2011, the charter is a guide on how parishes should deal with accusations and cases of child sex abuse by clergy and lay people.
Article 7 reads, "Dioceses/eparchies are to be open and transparent in communicating with the public about sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved. This is especially so with regard to informing parish and other church communities directly affected by the sexual abuse of a minor."
News of the investigation of Father Gamel saddened and angered parishioners. Sad that it's come to an investigation, angry that yet another child may be a victim.
"Before it was kind of hush-hush, nobody did anything and they tried to sweep it under the rug," said 85-year-old Teresa Rodriguez of Bakersfield, who describes herself as a staunch Catholic. "But I think now that this is out in the open, everybody should know about it." She feels the Diocese of Fresno did the right thing in informing the public about the investigation.
"We're still a wounded church and we're still in the healing process," said Dominguez.
Anyone with information that may be relevant to the investigation of Father Robert Gamel is asked to contact Detective Eduardo Solis or Sgt. Ivan Mendez at the Los Banos Police Department at 209-827-7070, ext. 0.