Ex-Los Banos priest convicted of child porn possession for second time in two years

An ex-priest of a Los Banos Catholic church pleaded no contest Tuesday of possessing child pornography for the second time in two years.

Robert Gamel, 67, pleaded no contest to possessing the same illegal images the led to his prior March 2016 conviction of possessing child pornography.

He also formally admitted violating probation from his previous conviction.

Gamel faces a maximum of six years and eight months in prison, which is double the maximum for the charge due to his repeat offense, Merced County Deputy District Attorney Travis Colby said.

But Gamel could also receive a probation sentence with no jail, depending on the judge’s decision.

Gamel’s attorney, Merced County Public Defender Richard Berger, declined to comment on the case or his client’s plea.

Gamel was the lead priest of St. Joseph Church in Los Banos from 2009 to 2014.

Allegations that Gamel was in possession of a nude image of a teenage parishioner first surfaced in August 2014, after the victim’s family alerted the Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

Church officials notified police and Gamel was placed on administrative leave from the church before he was formally removed as a priest in December 2014.

Gamel was transported to another location ministering to senior citizens. But he was removed from working in the ministry after his first arrest, according to church officials.

Gamel pleaded no contest in March 2016 to possessing child pornography and was sentenced to 11 months in jail. Colby, who also prosecuted the original case against Gamel, asked the court to sentence the disgraced former priest to the maximum prison term of three years, but the court opted for the shorter term.

The 11-month sentence was converted to an alternative program, allowing him to serve it without going to jail.

But during a probation search on April 12 in his Merced home, authorities arrested him after they found the same photographs from his first conviction printed on recycled church-related papers, according to probation reports.

Gamel told probation officers that “they were old photographs that he meant to get rid of but he had not gotten to,” according to reports.

A canonical investigation by the Diocese was ongoing, Chancellor Teresa Dominguez said in an email responding to Gamel’s plea Tuesday, adding that the “lengthy process” was confidential much like any other employment matters.

Fresno Bishop Armando X. Ochoa “is greatly sadden and concerned about the potential repercussions this news can have on the victim, the victim’s family, parish families, those closely involved in the investigation and the community of Los Banos,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez urged the community to remember that the Diocese was available to offer support to anyone feeling “re-traumatized” by Gamel’s conviction.

Gamel will be sentenced Jan. 4 in Merced Superior Court. He remains in custody at the Merced County Jail.