Ex-Priest Pleads Guilty in Parishioner's Sexual Assault

Associated Press State & Local Wire
October 10, 2003

An ex-priest who fled to South America six years ago to avoid trial in East Texas pleaded guilty Friday in the sexual assault of a teenage parishioner. He confessed to the FBI that he had sex with the altar girl at least twice a week for six months.

Gustavo DeJesus Cuello, former head priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, faces an Oct. 20 sentencing trial.

Cuello, 40, was accused of engaging in sexual intercourse with the 13-year-old girl between June 1996 and January 1997 - including before choir practice and Sunday services. He was arrested in July in Guayaguil, Equador, and was deported.

The victim, now 21, testified that Cuello convinced her she was willed to him by God, telling her that her parents did not love her. She and her parents recounted the ordeal that estranged them from the Catholic religion and forced them to live in fear until Cuello was captured.

"He said if I said something, he would kill my father," the victim recalled. "I heard people say, 'there's the girl who raped the priest in Catholic church."'

Cuello signed a sworn confession and pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child, but was allowed to reject District Judge Cynthia Kent's sentence of 50 years' imprisonment and instead request a jury trial on the punishment phase. Cuello faces five to 90 years or life imprisonment.

Smith County Chief Felony Prosecutor Matt Bingham urged that Cuello receive a life sentence, describing him as "the sickest person I've ever seen, a coward who left after law enforcement got after him, a pedophile, a manipulator - the worst kind."

Bingham said that he would bring a grand jury additional cases involving the same victim against Cuello since he did not accept the 50-year sentence. He said evidence suggested Cuello continued a sexual relationship with the victim for 10 months and prosecutors would pick more cases to file, in hopes of stacking sentences onto the one jurors will be asked to assess.

The Most Rev. Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio of the Tyler diocese told the Tyler Morning Telegraph in a statement Friday through the Rev. Gavin Vaverek that the diocese supported the investigation.

Cuello fled Texas while free on bond. He was married and working in the private sector when he was recaptured in Ecuador.

In more than a half-day of testimony Friday, the victim's father said one man offered him money in 1997 to drop charges against Cuello. Her mother said she wanted to kill Cuello the day her daughter confided in her about the abuse, and recalled a church counselor telling the family to leave town after charges were filed.

But some parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church testified in Cuello's behalf. One acknowledged she and her husband helped post his bail in 1997, adding she did not believe he is guilty. Defense attorney J. Warren St. John of Fort Worth described his client as a man with misguided love for a teenager.

St. John picked several other parishioners from the courtroom crowd to testify about how he came to Tyler from South America in 1996, attracting crowds to Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a church built in 1996 in Tyler with help of the victim's father.

The father said Cuello later turned his daughter against him, telling her "bad things about me."


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