Former Los Banos priest sentenced in child porn case

The ex-priest of a Los Banos Catholic church who pleaded no contest to possessing child pornography for the second time in two years was sentenced to four years in state prison on Thursday.

Robert Gamel, 67, was sentenced in Merced County Superior Court by Judge Jeanne E. Schechter. He’ll also be required to register as a sex offender.

Allegations that Gamel was in possession of a nude image of a teenage parishioner first surfaced in August 2014, after the victim’s family alerted the Catholic Diocese of Fresno, according to investigators.

Church officials notified police and Gamel was placed on administrative leave from the church before he was formally removed as a priest in December 2014.

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office was seeking the maximum sentence of six years and eight months, according to Travis Colby, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. He said it’s unknown if the teen victim will ever recover from his mental anguish, and the priest abused his position of trust.

Gamel had the image printed on three sheets of paper, according to investigators, and they were kept in a briefcase by themselves in a closet, Colby said.

“Almost like one possesses a trophy,” he said.

Gamel was the lead priest of St. Joseph Church in Los Banos from 2009 to 2014. He pleaded no contest in March 2016 to possessing child pornography and was sentenced to 11 months in jail. The sentence was converted to an alternative program, allowing him to serve it without going to jail.

But during a probation search on April 12 in his Merced home, authorities arrested him after they found the same photographs from his first conviction printed on recycled church-related papers, according to probation reports.

Gamel’s defense attorney, Merced County Public Defender Richard Berger, asked the judge to put his client back on probation, saying the photos were not new and that Gamel was not a threat.

“It’s been a tremendous ordeal for him,” Berger said in the courtroom. “He’s 67 years old. He’s been attacked while incarcerated.”

The disgraced priest was punched and kicked in the head and upper body, allegedly by Daniel C. Bar, a 21-year-old Newman man, in May. He suffered non-life-threatening injuries and was treated at the jail, according to the Merced County Sheriff’s Office.

Gamel told investigators that the photos in question were not new photos and he wasn’t sure how to destroy them. The judge didn’t buy it.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Schechter said in court. “You just destroy it.”

Along with victimizing the teen, Schechter said, Gamel victimized the boy’s family, who had come to the priest for help.

Fresno Bishop Armando X. Ochoa, who oversees the Diocese, released a statement through Chancellor Teresa Dominguez.

“(He) reiterates his heartfelt concern for all whose lives are deeply impacted by this matter, in addition to the scandal it creates among the general public,” she wrote in a statement. “An offense of this nature against a minor is intolerable; especially, when the offender is someone who is in a position of trust and called to serve the weak and vulnerable among us.”