Los Banos priest avoids prison in child pornography case

By Rob Parsons
Merced Sun-Star
May 24, 2016

The Rev. Robert E. Gamel also will be required to register as a sex offender for life, Judge Harry L. Jacobs ruled.

The Rev. Robert E. Gamel also will be required to register as a sex offender for life, Judge Harry L. Jacobs ruled.

A former Los Banos parish priest who was caught with child pornography was given four years of probation and the chance to avoid jail time during his sentencing hearing Tuesday.

The Rev. Robert E. Gamel, former lead priest of St. Joseph Church, also will be required to register as a sex offender for life, Merced County Judge Harry L. Jacobs ruled.

Gamel, 66, is expected to ask the Merced County Sheriff’s Office to convert an 11-month jail sentence to an alternative program, which would allow him to serve his sentence without spending any time behind bars. He was ordered to report to the Merced County jail on June 27.

Gamel, widely known in the community as “Father Bob,” led the St. Joseph parish for about five years before his removal in December 2014.

He pleaded guilty in March to a single felony count of possession of child pornography. According to a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Sun-Star, Gamel searched the Internet and found a nude photograph of a teenage boy from his parish.

Travis Colby, the Merced County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, acknowledged “disappointment” with the judge’s sentence, but said he “respects the ruling.”

Colby argued in court for the maximum possible sentence of three years in state prison. Colby said Gamel’s position of authority and public trust in the Los Banos community requires a higher standard of conduct.

“This was such an egregious violation of the public’s trust, and the court needs to define that as something that won’t be tolerated,” Colby told the judge.

Roger Litman, Gamel’s attorney, argued against prison time, noting that his client has no prior criminal record. Litman also pointed to Gamel’s age, the fact that he accepted responsibility for his actions early on, and said his medical condition would make Gamel a candidate for probation in lieu of prison.

“Nothing I say today is an excuse for what my client did,” Litman told the judge.

He argued that a felony conviction, registering as a sex offender for life and “the public shame” associated with the case would “act as a deterrent” for other criminals.

Gamel’s status with the Catholic Church remains up in the air.

Teresa Dominguez, chancellor of the Fresno diocese, said church authorities are set to a launch a “canonical investigation, which reviews all aspects of the case as it relates to church law.”

“Since it is an internal process involving personnel, the diocese will be required to maintain confidentiality,” Dominguez said in a statement.

Bishop Armando Ochoa, head of the Fresno diocese, said in a prepared statement the church recognized “pornography is not a victimless crime.”

“The breach of trust can have deep, long-lasting effects,” he said.

Allegations against Gamel surfaced in August 2014. Diocese officials informed police that Gamel was suspected of obtaining naked photographs of a teenage parishioner, according to the affidavit.

Police, in the affidavit, described a pattern of behavior involving Gamel and young males in the church that some parishoners described as “uncomfortable,” including hugging a young man in a single-person restroom, rubbing the back of a sleeping teenager and touching young men on their arms, chest and shoulders.

Church officials sent letters to eight other California churches where Gamel had served since joining the priesthood in 1990.

Investigators said they do not believe there were any other victims.

Gamel was placed on leave for several months before he was formally removed as priest in December 2014. During the investigation, Gamel was transferred to another location where he ministered to senior citizens. He was removed from working in the ministry following his arrest in June 2015, church officials have said.

Colby, in his arguments, noted that Los Banos residents have been “hit hard” in recent years with authority figures accused of violating the public’s trust. While Colby did not directly reference any specific cases, at least three other public authority figures have been arrested in Los Banos in recent months.

Last year, high school teacher Gary Bettencourt was arrested and charged with having sexual relationships with teenage students. He has pleaded not guilty.

In April, Dominic Falasco, a Los Banos Unified School Board trustee and prominent defense attorney, was arrested on a drug possession allegation. Falasco has denied wrongdoing. His case is under review by the Mariposa County District Attorney’s Office.

Last week, Dusty E. Norris, a former Los Banos high school teacher turned police officer, was arrested and charged with having sexual relationships with at least two teenage students. He is scheduled for arraignment Thursday. Norris’ attorney, Chris Loethen, has said his client plans to fight the charges.

Gamel quietly left the courtroom Tuesday with his attorney and several other men, including at least two who appeared to be priests. Gamel said he had “no comment” for the public.

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