A former Catholic priest in Los Banos pleaded guilty Friday to possession of child pornography, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office said.
The Rev. Robert E. Gamel, 65, changed his plea before Judge Harry Jacobs in Merced Superior Court. He faces up to three years in state prison when he is sentenced May 24, according to Travis Colby, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.
Gamel is the former head of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Los Banos and was commonly known throughout the city as “Father Bob.” He was head of the church in Los Banos from 2009 to December 2014.
It’s unlikely Gamel would receive the maximum sentence as he has no prior criminal history, prosecutors acknowledged.
He also will be required to register as a sex offender, authorities said.
“However, we’ll have to see what (the judge) decides to do,” Colby said in an interview with the Merced Sun-Star. “I’m relieved that he’s chosen to take responsibility for his actions so the victim can move on with his life.”
Gamel was charged with possession of a nude photograph of a teenage boy. Gamel told other priests he sought out the illicit photograph on the Internet, according to a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Sun-Star.
His position as a priest in the community is a position of trust and I think this caused some doubt in the community when the allegations first came up.
Detective Sgt. Ivan Mendez, Los Banos Police Department
The Rev. Guadalupe Rios told police that Gamel had informed him “that (the teenager) had posted nude photographs of himself on the Internet and that Gamel had located the photos and seen them firsthand,” the affidavit says.
“I can’t speculate as to why he decided to accept responsibility, I can only say that’s what he did today,” Colby said.
Gamel’s attorney, Roger Litman, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Colby said he was not surprised by Gamel’s abrupt plea change, saying detectives with the Los Banos Police Department “put together and presented a very strong case.”
Detective Sgt. Ivan Mendez, the lead investigator in the case, also praised the work done by Los Banos detectives.
“His position as a priest in the community is a position of trust and I think this caused some doubt in the community when the allegations first came up,” Mendez said Friday. “I’m glad he decided to accept responsibility. It gives the victim an opportunity for closure and will allow the community and all of us to move on.”
The allegations against Gamel first surfaced in August 2014. Officials from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno informed police that Gamel was suspected of obtaining naked photographs of a teenage parishioner, according to the affidavit.
Police, in the affidavit, described a pattern of behavior involving Gamel and young male parishioners that made others in the church “uncomfortable.” Allegations described included hugging a young man in a single-person restroom, rubbing the back of a sleeping teenager and touching young men on their arms, chest and shoulders.
Church officials sent letters to eight other California churches where Gamel served since joining the priesthood in 1990.
Investigators said they do not believe there were any other victims.
Gamel was placed on leave for several months before he was formally removed as St. Joseph’s priest in December 2014. During the investigation, Gamel was transferred to another location where he reportedly ministered only to senior citizens. He was removed from working in the ministry following his arrest in June 2015, church officials said.
It was not immediately clear how the conviction would affect Gamel’s ministry. Teresa Dominguez, chancellor of the Diocese of Fresno, said the church would follow its established protocol and a decision would be made in the near future.
“I can say it will absolutely and clearly have impact on his status as a priest, on his ministry, and we will want people to be aware of that outcome,” Dominguez said. “But, exactly what may happen in the future will depend on the process and we will continue working closely with law enforcement.”
Gamel remains free on bail pending sentencing.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482