Police inquiry into Los Banos priest could take months

09/04/2014 5:21 PM

09/04/2014 6:19 PM

An investigation into allegations of a Los Banos Catholic priest possibly possessing child pornography could take at least three more months to complete, the Los Banos Police Department said Thursday.

Cmdr. Jason Hedden said a forensic examination of computers seized from the home and office of the Rev. Robert E. Gamel will take much longer than initially anticipated.

“There’s an overwhelming amount of information and computer files that they have to go through,” Hedden said. “The detectives also have look at the files in way that doesn’t violate (confidential) information.”

Priests enjoy “confessional privilege,” which protects the confidentiality of certain conversations between a clergyman and a church member. Officers are working with an attorney, known as a “special master,” to examine the computers without infringing on protected information.

Gamel, 64, has been under investigation since Aug. 14, when church officials told police the head of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Los Banos may have obtained from the Internet nude photographs of a teenage parishioner, according to court records obtained by the Merced Sun-Star.

Gamel, who is commonly known around Los Banos as “Father Bob,” has not been arrested or formally accused by law enforcement of wrongdoing.

The Sun-Star reached Gamel on Thursday by telephone, asking for his side of the story. He declined to comment, referring questions to his Fresno-based attorney, Roger Litman.

Litman also declined to discuss the investigation. “I think it’s not appropriate to make any comment at this point,” Litman told the Sun-Star. “Obviously, the truth is going to come out and when we find if there are going to be any charges filed or not, then we’ll be in a better position to have some kind of comment.”

Gamel has moved from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church’s rectory in the 1600 block of Center Street in Los Banos but has not been taken out of the area. Church officials have repeatedly said Gamel was transferred to another location where no children are present.

Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, on Thursday clarified the church’s statements, saying no minors are present around Gamel “who are entrusted to the care of adult supervision being provided by church personnel and/or designated adult volunteers,” Dominguez said in an email to the Sun-Star.

Dominguez said the diocese never claimed Gamel had been transferred out of Los Banos. “The Diocese of Fresno stated that Fr. Gamel was relocated to a location where there are no minors present during the course of the investigation. We did not state whether or not this was within or outside of the city of Los Banos,” Dominguez said in the email.

Police said the diocese in Fresno has been “extremely cooperative” and “helpful” during the investigation, noting that Dominguez and another church official, Cheryl Sarkisian, were the first to inform police of the allegations and did so within hours of receiving a complaint from the teenager’s family. Police said Gamel also continues to cooperate with investigators.

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.

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

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 about the case.

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