September 2, 2014

New details surface in police investigation into Los Banos priest

The Rev. Robert E. Gamel, 64, commonly known as “Father Bob,” has been under investigation since Aug. 14 when accusations surfaced involving the leader of St. Joseph’s Church in Los Banos. Gamel has not been arrested or formally accused by law enforcement of wrongdoing.

The investigation into the Rev. Robert E. Gamel centers on allegations the Los Banos Catholic priest on at least two occasions obtained nude photographs of a teenage parishioner from social media websites, according to documents obtained by the Merced Sun-Star.

Gamel, 64, has been under investigation since Aug. 14 when accusations surfaced involving the leader of St. Joseph’s Church in Los Banos and a teenage boy who attended the church. Gamel, who is commonly known in Los Banos as “Father Bob,” has not been arrested or formally accused of wrongdoing, police Cmdr. Jason Hedden said Tuesday.

Efforts to reach Gamel have been unsuccessful. Church officials said Gamel has been transferred to an undisclosed location where no children are present pending further investigation.

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

Investigators on Tuesday continued combing through the items seized from the priest’s home and office.

“Because it involves a member of the clergy, detectives have to take additional steps to examine evidence in a way that does not violate protections of the sacrament,” Hedden said.

Priests enjoy “confessional privilege,” which, similar to attorney-client privilege, protects the confidentiality of certain conversations between a clergyman and a church member. Officers have to examine the computers without infringing on records that may be protected under that privilege, police said.

According to the affidavit, Gamel told other priests he’d searched for and, on at least two occasions, located nude photographs of the teenage boy, possibly on a social networking website.

Gamel had also “bragged” to several people “about the anonymous Instagram account and how none of them would ever suspect who he was on Instagram,” the affidavit says.

The affidavit describes a pattern of behavior involving Gamel and young men that made others in the church “uncomfortable.” Actions described in the affidavit include hugging a young male in a locked single-person restroom, rubbing the back of a sleeping teenager and touching young males on their shoulders, chest and arms.

The Rev. Guadalupe Rios told police about “another incident in which Gamel had given another juvenile a set of weights and had the juvenile begin to exercise and follow up with him with phone calls to update Gamel ... on his progress,” the affidavit says. “Although Gamel’s actions were not illegal, Rios felt that it was inappropriate for a priest to behave in the manner in which Gamel was conducting himself,” the afidavit says.

Rios worked with Gamel for more than three years before he left the parish in October 2013, the affidavit says.

Rios told police, “Gamel had informed Rios that (the teenager) had posted nude photographs of himself on the Internet and that Gamel had located the photos and seen them firsthand. Rios warned Gamel of the legal consequences of looking at such photographs as they were considered to be child pornography.”

Church officials have sent letters to members of the other eight California churches in which Gamel served since he was ordained in 1990, asking members to come forward if they have any information regarding him, said Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

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