Rape Victim Taunted

Tyler Morning Telegraph
October 22, 2003

A young woman sexually abused for months by a priest in a Tyler Catholic church when she was 13 described being taunted Wednesday by parishioners who support him, and a psychologist called the molestation a classic case of a predator using his status to groom his prey.

Also in the second day of testimony in the punishment trial for Gustavo Cuello, the victim, now 21, recalled he kept a calendar in his church office with codes indicating the Wednesdays and Sundays he had sex with her before preaching to crowds.

Attempting to mitigate the circumstances in the molestation case, defense attorney J. Warren St. John of Fort Worth continued to call witnesses from the church who testified they partially blame the victim, formerly an altar girl and an active church participant.

"Here, you couldn't tell who was manipulating who," said Rosa Tovar, one of several parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church who testified they would want Cuello, now in jail and removed from the priesthood, to again lead their church. "I blame them both. We are all sinners. Any of us can fall into a trap."

Ms. Tovar and her 21-year-old daughter, Denise Tovar, both testified in Cuello's behalf and glared and laughed at the victim in the hallway outside the courtroom during this week's proceedings, the young woman said.

She and her family previously testified they were ostracized by church members after reporting the abuse, the victim was called derogatory names and one parishioner tried to bribe the family into dismissing charges against Cuello.

On Wednesday, the victim broke into tears on the witness stand when asked about the most recent degrading comments from people with whom she formerly went to church.

"I was walking into a room (vacant courtroom) where my parents were and there was talking, giggling as I walked into the courtroom," the victim said. "It hurt. Denise, her mom, people in the hall were laughing."

Cuello, 40, was recaptured in South America in July after six years on the lam to avoid facing an aggravated sexual assault of a child charge. Court testimony revealed he bonded out of jail following his arrest in 1997 after church members raised money for his bail, and he then fled the country.

In a confession to FBI agents who recently tracked him down in Ecuador, Cuello admitted to having sex with the 13-year-old victim, a sixth-grader, one or two times a week for six to eight months in the church. Our Lady of Guadalupe on Old Omen Road was built in 1996 primarily to serve the Hispanic congregation of Tyler's Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, and Cuello, a Colombian national, was recruited from Ecuador to lead the new church.

Since his return to Smith County Jail, Cuello has pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child and a jury on Thursday is expected to decide on a punishment ranging from five years to life in prison. In a prior sentencing hearing, Cuello rejected a 50-year prison term assessed by state District Judge Cynthia Kent, opting for a jury to decide his fate.

The victim testified she had not come close to kissing a boy in 1996 when Cuello took her into his church office and had sex with her for the first time - one of at least 22 times she could recall. After awhile, he purchased an air mattress for their encounters, which he told her, were "God's will," and that she was "the chosen one," she testified.

"Now, it's been hard for me to find somebody to love me," said the victim, noting that she currently has a boyfriend and is experiencing a normal, healthy relationship. "I felt like I was trash."

Dr. Gayle Burress, recruited by prosecutors to analyze the pedophile priest case, called it "the classic case of grooming," in which a child is "molded" into "a slave to serve the perpetrator's needs with little or no regard for the child's needs or perceptions."

She explained, "it starts with singling a child out, telling that child they are special.

"If the child is groomed by someone they see as an authority figure, the grooming takes less time because they start with a halo," Dr. Burress said.

Around others in a church or community, the doctor said victims tend to "act almost flirtatious." Having "experienced a physical intimacy they are not ready for, they are trying to grow into this role."

Viewing a photograph of the victim when she was 13, Dr. Burress refuted defense witnesses who claimed the girl was more mature and advanced than most adolescents.

"She's just a beautiful child - not very sophisticated," the doctor said.

Church member Maria Zavala testified she blames the victim and her parents for Cuello's predicament.

"If this happened in my family, I'd be ashamed of my kids," Mrs. Zavala said. "I saw the error that he did but I also know the good things he did."

Anabel Flores, a 22-year-old college student, formerly was friends with the victim but turned against her after she reported the sexual abuse.

"I don't consider him (Cuello) a child molester," Ms. Flores testified Wednesday. "She did it because she wanted to."

In a hearing outside the jury's presence, Judge Kent ruled Cuello is not eligible for probation, although no evidence was presented indicating he has prior convictions.

The judge cited case law showing "the burden rests on the defendant to prove he has no priors."

Cuello elected not to testify in his behalf so there was no evidence presented concerning his background.


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