Crime

Priest with two child porn convictions in Merced County still getting paid by diocese

A Catholic priest twice convicted of possessing child pornography in Merced County — and recently released from prison — has continued to receive checks from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno since he was first arrested nearly five years ago.

Father Robert Gamel, 69, was released on post-release community supervision from the California Institution for Men prison in Chino on April 13, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Gamel was incarcerated four years, including 605 days of time served in Merced County jail, following his second arrest on possession of child pornography, according to a CDCR statement.

Gamel, the former head of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Los Banos, where he was affectionately known as “Father Bob,” now resides in Tulare County with his family. He remains on paid administrative leave, pending a canonical investigation, said Diocese of Fresno Chancellor Teresa Dominguez.

Gamel has remained on paid leave since Aug. 15, 2014 — a day after allegations surfaced involving a teenage church member, Dominguez confirmed. She said the priest has remained on paid administrative leave because he can’t return to active ministry.

He’s the diocese’s only priest with a criminal conviction who is still on paid administrative leave.

The church can’t go into details on its investigation, Dominguez said, adding that the process was interrupted with the unexpected death of the diocese’s judicial canon lawyer. Gamel’s case was in process of being transferred for review by the new Bishop, Rev. Joseph V. Brennan.

Dominguez said she couldn’t immediately answer questions on why Gamel was continuing to receive pay from the diocese — despite two convictions and a prison sentence — due to a need to review details regarding personnel matters before releasing information.

“A canonical investigation and submission of findings to the Vatican is a very detailed and lengthy process,” Dominguez said in an email. “Until a final determination is made, a bishop has a moral responsibility to ensure that the basic human needs of the priest are provided.”

While there are exceptions, including a priest choosing not to participate in the investigation and severing his relationship with the diocese, “an ordained priest has a relationship with the church that is broader and more complex compared to just an employee-employer relationship,” Dominguez said.

The diocese, under the leadership of new Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, launched its own investigation into sexual abuse of minors within the church. The investigation started April 30 and is being headed by former FBI executive assistant director Kathleen McChesney, who is looking into files going back to 1922, church officials said.

The diocese has placed eight priests on paid administrative leave, with six of those facing allegations of sexual misconduct involving a minor, Dominguez said.

Recently, Reedley priest Monsignor John Esquivel was placed on paid administrative leave on June 20 after Sylvia Gomez Ray alleged she was victimized by Ezquivel in the mid-1980s. The Rev. Eric Swearengin was placed on paid leave on June 5 stemming from information in a 2006 civil case that was settled.

Monsignor Craig Francis Harrison, a 59-year-old priest who served at Our Lady of Mercy, Sacred Heart and St. Patrick’s in Merced, was placed on paid leave in April following allegations of sexual misconduct involving an adult male in Firebaugh, who was a minor when the abuse happened.

Gamel’s first arrest happened after the church’s victim assistance coordinator first interviewed a church youth and his parents on Aug. 14, 2014, Dominguez said, adding the church filed a report with the Los Banos Police Department that night.

Gamel reportedly possessed nude photographs of the teenage parishioner, finding them on Instagram, according to court records. He reportedly “bragged” to people about having an anonymous Instagram account and that no one would ever suspect his Instagram identity.

Court documents also described a pattern of behavior where Gamel reportedly hugged a young male in a locked single-person restroom, rubbed the back of a sleeping teenager and touched young males on their shoulders, arms and chest.

Gamel pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography on March 11, 2016, but avoided prison time in lieu of an alternative sentence, four months probation and a requirement he register as a sex offender for life.

But a little more than a year after his plea, on April 12, 2017, a probation search in his Merced home revealed he was in possession of the same photographs from his first conviction, according to probation reports.

Gamel told probation officers at the time those images were old photographs he meant to get rid of, but hadn’t, the reports state. He was arrested and booked into Merced County jail, where at one point he was attacked by another inmate.

On Nov. 28, 2017, he pleaded no contest to possessing child pornography and admitted violating probation. This time, he was sentenced to four years in state prison. He also was required to register as a sex offender.

Fresno Bee reporter Yesenia Amaro contributed to this report.

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Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.
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