Breaking News: Los Banos priest arrested on child pornography charges

By Rob Parsons
Merced Sun-Star
June 10, 2015

A former Los Banos Catholic priest has been charged with possession of child pornography following a 10-month investigation by the city’s police department.

The Rev. Robert Gamel was arrested Wednesday afternoon and booked at the Merced County jail, according to booking records.

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday filed a single felony count against Gamel of possession of matter depicting sexual conduct of a person under the age of 18, according to court records.

A warrant was issued for his arrest, but Gamel surrendered Wednesday to the Los Banos Police Department, Cmdr. Jason Hedden confirmed.

Gamel was booked Wednesday afternoon on the charge, posted $20,000 bail 30 minutes later and was released.

If convicted, Gamel faces up to three years in jail or prison, police confirmed.

Gamel, 65, has been under investigation since Aug. 14, when church officials told police the now-former head of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Los Banos may have obtained from the Internet nude photographs of a teenage parishioner, according to court records obtained by the Merced Sun-Star.

“The investigation has been painstaking, and we have been committed to completing a thorough investigation to determine the best possible outcome. We have to get it right, and sometimes that takes time,” police Chief Gary Brizzee said in a news release.

Gamel was placed on administrative leave and was replaced in December as the priest at St. Joseph’s.

The veteran priest had been “celebrating Mass on a limited basis” at a ministry for senior citizens. However, as a result of his arrest Wednesday, he will no longer work in a ministry pending the outcome of the criminal case, according to Teresa Dominguez, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

Dominguez said the church worked “very closely” with Los Banos police throughout the case.

“And we continue to encourage anyone who has concerns to contact the police,” Dominguez told the Sun-Star. “We are making sure we continue to reach out to the victim and the family and to anyone in the parish community who feels affected by this. Those are our main concerns.”

Police on Aug. 15 seized a laptop, computer tower, CDs and a brown box containing nearly 20 DVDs, many involving erotic-themed male muscle films, according to a copy of a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Sun-Star.

According to the affidavit, Gamel told other priests he had sought out nude photographs of the teenage boy, possibly from a social networking website. Gamel “bragged” to several people “about (his) anonymous Instagram account and how none of them would ever suspect who he was on Instagram,” the affidavit says.

The Rev. Guadalupe Rios told police that Gamel had informed him “that (the teenager) had posted nude photographs of himself on the Internet and that Gamel had located the photos and seen them firsthand.”

“The investigation reveled that the behavior was limited to possession of an inappropriate photograph of a minor and at this time we do not believe there are any other victims,” Detective Sgt. Ivan Mendez said in the statement.

The affidavit illustrated a pattern of behavior involving Gamel and young men that several church officials described as “uncomfortable,” such as hugging a young male in a locked restroom, rubbing the back of a sleeping teenager and touching young men on their arms, chest and shoulders.

Rios told police that Gamel did several things that were “inappropriate for a priest,” the affidavit says.

Police from the beginning of the case said the investigation would take several months. Priests enjoy “confessional privilege,” which protects the confidentiality of certain conversations between a clergyman and a church member. Officers had to examine computers without compromising information that may be protected under that privilege.

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