The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY VIKAAS SHANKER [email protected]­ced­sun­

The Ro­man Catholic Dio­cese of Fresno is still pay­ing a priest twice con­victed of possess­ing child pornog­ra­phy.

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 postre­lease 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, the 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 sin­gleper­son 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.

Robert Gamel

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