Fresno Priest Accused of Sexual Abuse of Immigrant Parishioners to Stand Trial

One of the alleged victims in the Castañeda case holds a rosary after talking with a KQED reporter at his home in Fresno. Nine former parishioners - eight men and one woman - have accused the priest of sexual abuse. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

A former Anglican priest accused of sexually abusing some of his adult immigrant parishioners in Fresno, under the guise of a supposed spiritual healing ritual, will stand trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Jesús Antonio Castañeda Serna walked out of the courtroom flanked by his supporters, who hugged him in the hallway as he left. Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jane A. Cardoza ruled the case will go to trial on all charges. Castañeda has been charged with 22 counts of battery, sexual battery, attempted sexual battery and attempt to dissuade a witness from prosecuting.

Cardoza’s ruling came after nine days of testimony by nine alleged victims, most of them adult men who said the priest massaged their genitals under the pretext of a “prayer” or “healing” ritual.

"The court finds that the witnesses were authentic and credible," said Cardoza. "Indeed, I was taken by the tone of their testimony, being humbled, quite baffled by the defendant's actions and ultimately disillusioned by him."

Castañeda, through his attorney, has maintained his innocence. Defense attorney Ralph Torres said the alleged sexual abuse never happened and he thought they would prevail at trial.

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"This type of healing massage happens all over Latin America, Mexico and in the United States. Nothing unusual about that," he said after Cardoza's ruling.

The alleged victims described visiting Castañeda’s office to receive healing for physical ailments and personal issues such as drug or alcohol abuse, separation from a spouse, or the death of a child. Most said they were referred by other congregants who claimed the priest possessed spiritual gifts and the ability to heal.

According to the eight men and one woman who testified, Castañeda told them that they had been cursed by previous wives or girlfriends, or were possessed by a demon and needed spiritual healing. (The witnesses were named in court, but KQED is not disclosing their identities because they are alleged victims of sexual abuse.)

The witnesses said Castañeda instructed them to strip down to their underwear, lay on a bench or massage table, and receive “healing” or “prayer” massages that they described as very painful. One man reported he had visible bruises for days after the massages. Prosecutor Kelly Smith presented photos showing the man’s neck with red marks, which the witness said a family member took after one of the prayer massages.

The massages often ended in the priest touching parishioners’ genitals, the witnesses testified. In some cases, they described a grazing that could have been accidental. In others, they said, Castañeda grabbed their penis or testicles through their underwear or attempted to masturbate them. Sometimes the priest claimed to have removed a black or yellow substance from their penis, the men said. The woman said Castañeda touched her breasts while making the sign of the cross on her chest.

Jesús Antonio Castañeda Serna preaches to parishioners of his new church, Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, or Holy Spirit Church. Castañeda has been charged with 22 counts of battery, sexual battery, attempted sexual battery and attempt to prevent a witness/victim from prosecuting.
Jesús Antonio Castañeda Serna preaches to parishioners of his new church, Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, or Holy Spirit Church. Castañeda has been charged with 22 counts of battery, sexual battery, attempted sexual battery and attempt to prevent a witness/victim from prosecuting. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

The alleged victims described leaving the meetings shocked, ashamed and confused. Some said the events forever altered their trust in priests. The witnesses said the meetings took place at different times in recent years: The first accounts of the abuse date back to 2014 and the most recent to 2017.

One man alleged Castañeda told him the priest needed to see his semen to determine how he should be treated. Another man said Castañeda yanked on his penis so abruptly that he heard a popping noise and urinated blood for two to three days.

Another witness said one prayer massage ended with Castañeda masturbating him and telling him that he was in love with him. The man, who was a parishioner and church volunteer, said the experience led him to attempt suicide.

“You start confusing God and a human being and you have trouble making the distinction between what’s good and what’s bad,” the man testified in Spanish through an interpreter. “And you realize that what’s happening to you isn’t right.”

When defense attorney Torres asked the same man whether he reported the alleged sexual touching to the priest's superiors at the church, the witness replied: “This isn’t something you can just talk about. Because there’s going to be some people who believe you, there’s going to be some people who do not believe you, and I couldn’t talk about it at the time.”

The offices of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Fresno, where witnesses testified in court that some of the healing massages took place. (Alexandra Hall)

Another witness testified that following an incident in which he said Castañeda attempted to masturbate him, he saw the priest at church. The witness said Castañeda patted him on the back and warned, “You better not tell anyone. You know the consequences.” The witness said he took the comment to be a threat that the priest could report his parents to immigration officials if he spoke up.

The witnesses faced Castañeda in court, along with his many supporters, all churchgoers who followed the priest after he was removed from the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin because of the allegations, to his new congregation — Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, or Holy Spirit Church in Fresno.

At different points during the testimony, the priest’s supporters scoffed and chuckled, or glared at witnesses when they exited the courtroom. Others talked under their breath, and smirked or laughed in response to the witness testimony.

In an interview at Castañeda's new church before the preliminary hearing began, a supporter of the priest said: "What they have said is not believable."

"If the father asked me to touch myself ... as an adult I would say, you know what father, this isn't normal," said Carolina Perea. "You can't do this, I won't do it. Because we're not talking about kids here. These are adults."

At one point, Judge Cardoza stopped the hearing to chide members of the audience who were making audible noises, telling them they could not interrupt the proceedings. “I can hear you,” she said.

Defense attorney Torres questioned the alleged victims, asking them if they had applied for U visa, a visa for victims of crimes who cooperate with law enforcement in investigating or prosecuting a criminal case. Defenders of the priest have argued Castañeda's alleged victims are making accusations in an attempt to obtain legal status in the United States. The immigration status of the witnesses isn't clear, but one man said he got help applying for a U visa. Others said they didn’t know about the visa or had not applied.

Castañeda led Latino parishioners in Fresno for nearly a decade before allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused parishioners. At the time, Castañeda was pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Spanish-language congregation of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.

In 2017, Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin said three men reported to him that Castañeda had a healing ministry where he told parishioners if he anointed their genitals, he could heal them of their sexual sins. The bishop, who said he considered the allegations to be credible, confronted Castañeda.

“I essentially let him know that the allegations had been made. I did not say who the allegations were from. And his immediate response was to say ‘Yes, I learned this healing ministry in India,’ ” Menees said.

“And I just said, ‘No you didn’t. ... that’s just a lie. It certainly wasn’t a Christian healing ministry,' " Menees told KQED at his office in Fresno.

Bishop Menees contacted Fresno police in October 2017 and removed Castañeda from his post at the Anglican church the next month. Fresno police began investigating the priest and arrested Castañeda in February 2019.

To date, nine alleged victims have joined the criminal case. Over 40 people told church officials that they or a family member or friend were abused, Menees said.

St. Juan Diego Parish in Cowiche, Washington. Castañeda was the pastor of the church in 2005, when an unidentified man has alleged the priest touched him inappropriately. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

An Earlier Allegation

The allegations in Fresno are not the first to have been lodged against the priest.

From 1997-2005, Castañeda was a priest with the Catholic Diocese of Yakima in Washington. In December 2005, he was suspended from the ministry due to allegations he violated the seal of confession, Yakima Diocese Chancellor Msgr. Robert Siler told KQED.

At Castañeda’s request, Siler said, he was laicized in December 2007.

Records show that in 2009, the Yakima Diocese notified the Anglican Diocese in Fresno that the priest had allegedly touched the genitals of a young adult man under his care several years earlier.

When asked whether the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, or the bishop at the time, notified parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe of the Yakima allegation, Bishop Menees said Tuesday that, due to the pending criminal and civil proceedings, counsel had advised him not to make any additional comment.

Menees became the bishop in 2011. The previous head of the diocese, Bishop John-David Schofield, said in a September 2009 letter to the Yakima Diocese that “it appears to me Fr. Antonio has been wrongly accused.”

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Court documents show the man, who said he made the allegation in 2005, was interviewed by a Fresno police detective but did not want to come forward as a victim. In an in-person interview with KQED, the man said he hoped and prayed there would be justice for the alleged victims in Fresno.

“It is quite similar, what happened to me, what they are describing,” the man said.

“It’s a tragedy … that he was able to abuse his power in ministry for 10 years,” Msgr. Siler said. “How do we stop that? I don’t know. I can’t imagine the Diocese of Yakima having the resources to follow him around with a sign, for example, saying, ‘Don’t go near this man.’ ”

Since his removal from the Anglican church, Castañeda has been re-ordained by the World Communion of Christian Celtic Convergence Churches, headquartered in the United Kingdom. The U.S.-based archbishop of the church, Bruce Taylor, said he believes Castañeda is innocent.

“This is not some banana republic. This is the United States of America,” Taylor said. “We have due process. And everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

When asked about the allegations stemming from Castañeda’s time in Yakima, Taylor said he was unaware of them. Defense attorney Torres said the Yakima allegation has no relevance to the Fresno case.

If convicted, Castañeda faces up to 23½ years in prison.