Crime

Los Banos priest remains under investigation, new pastor appointed

Parishioners of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Los Banos expect a new pastor to take the reins of the parish next month, replacing the Rev. Robert Gamel, who remains under investigation by the Los Banos Police Department for possible possession of child pornography.

The Rev. Efrain Martinez will transition into the Los Banos church formally by Dec. 15, according to Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. Dominguez confirmed the appointment Tuesday in an interview with the Merced Sun-Star.

Dominguez stopped short of calling the appointment “permanent,” saying a shortage of priests in California makes it difficult for church officials to keep all positions filled.

“But it’s for the stability of the parish and the appointment is definitely expected to last for an extended amount of time,” Dominguez said.

Few details were available Tuesday regarding the new pastor, but Dominguez said he has been ordained for several years and is moving to the area from Selma.

News of the appointment came about three months after the Los Banos Police Department confirmed an investigation into Gamel, the parish’s former leader. Gamel, 64, has been under investigation for allegedly possessing nude photographs of a teenage parishioner on at least two occasions.

Gamel, a veteran church priest, has not been arrested or formally accused of any wrongdoing by police.

Dominguez on Tuesday confirmed Gamel remains on paid administrative leave from the church pending completion of the police investigation. Gamel, who is commonly known around Los Banos as “Father Bob,” has been moved from the church rectory on Center Street to a location where no children are housed, church officials said previously.

Los Banos police Sgt. Ivan Mendez this week said investigators are still waiting for reports to come back from the state Department of Justice. Police in September requested the Justice Department conduct a forensic analysis of Gamel’s computer and other evidence seized in the investigation.

Mendez said detectives hope to have results from that analysis sometime this week or early next week.

Gamel’s attorney, Roger Litman, declined comment Tuesday.

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

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 from a social networking website.

Police said the investigation is expected to take longer than usual as detectives have to search through Gamel’s computers without infringing on his “confession privilege.” The privilege, which is similar to attorney-client privilege, protects the confidentiality between a clergyman and a church member.

Sun-Star staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or rparsons@mercedsunstar.com.

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