‘He Played With People’s Minds’: Former Yakima Priest Moves To California, Bringing Abuse Allegations


WATCH: Abuse Allegations Against Former Yakima Diocese Priest 

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NOTE: Some accounts of sexual assault in this story contain explicit details and strong language that some may find upsetting or objectionable. This story by NPR member station KQED examines a former priest in the Catholic diocese of Yakima and his work in California.


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Luis said he couldn’t tell the doctor what had really happened.

It had been several days since he first noticed the blood in his urine and the bruising around his groin.

The 40-year-old native of Jalisco, Mexico, had been meeting with a popular local priest in Fresno, Jesús Antonio Castañeda Serna, who went by the name Father Antonio. His family had introduced him to Father Antonio in hope of the priest helping Luis, who had struggled with an addiction to meth, get back on his feet.

“A lot of people would come looking for him,” said Luis, which is not his real name. KQED is not using the real names of alleged sexual assault survivors in this story. “They said it was something … like a gift from God he had.”

At the time, Father Antonio was lead pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Spanish-language congregation of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. The priest’s charismatic leadership drew in hundreds from Fresno’s Latino community and his rumored healing abilities had earned him the nickname “el padrecito que hace milagros” — the priest who performs miracles.

After being removed from the Catholic and Anglican churches, Father Antonio Castañeda preaches at 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.

After being removed from the Catholic and Anglican churches, Father Antonio Castañeda preaches at 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. CREDIT: Alexandra Hall/KQED

During sessions in Father Antonio’s office that Luis said took place over the course of several years, he would lie down on a bench or massage table wearing only his boxers, while Father Antonio prayed and rubbed oil onto his skin. The intensity of the massage was so forceful that the priest often left bruises, Luis later testified.

He had told his mom and girlfriend that he had been hurt at his construction job. It seemed easier that way, he said. And now, at the medical clinic, the doctor asked more questions — questions that Luis said he didn’t feel comfortable answering.

“I didn’t tell [the doctor] that someone had touched me,” Luis told KQED in November 2019. “It’s difficult. A man touches another adult … what was I going to say — he touched me? It’s a little ridiculous. Because people wouldn’t have believed me.”

Luis eventually told authorities that it was during these massages — which the priest said he needed to expel a curse from his body — that Father Antonio sexually assaulted him.

A Cure for Curses and Sexual Sins

In 2017, several men came forward with allegations that Castañeda had sexually abused parishioners during massages that he said could heal them physically or spiritually, said Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.

“All of the victims that I met with at the beginning were undocumented men and so going to the police was a scary prospect,” Menees said.

But, in early 2018, Luis and another man agreed to be interviewed by detectives.

The other alleged victim told police that Castañeda instructed him to masturbate in front of him on multiple occasions, according to a declaration by a Fresno police investigator to support an arrest warrant. He said the priest told him that he needed to see his semen to determine the exact curse or illness afflicting him. In one instance, the man said, Castañeda hugged him and told him he loved him “as a man loves a woman.”

Castañeda was arrested in February 2019 and released the next day on bond. Over 40 parishioners told church officials that they, or someone they knew, had been abused by Castañeda, Menees told KQED in an email.

So far, nine people — eight men, including Luis, and one woman — have been listed as alleged victims in the criminal case, according to court testimony.

Castañeda faces 22 counts of battery, sexual battery, attempted sexual battery and attempting to dissuade a witness. His case, which was expected to go to trial this year, has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A KQED investigation found Castañeda had been accused before and has moved from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church and then to another religious group without undergoing complete background checks — or any at all.

As he awaits trial, Castañeda has opened a new church where he continues to lead services.

Castañeda has denied all charges through his attorney, Ralph Torres, who said the priest’s accusers have misinterpreted an accepted form of traditional healing.

“This is a cultural thing,” Torres said. “This type of healing massage happens all over Latin America, Mexico and in the United States. Nothing unusual about that. You may have a misunderstanding, something that wasn’t appreciated.”

Torres said his client never sexually abused parishioners and that “the truth will come out at trial.” Torres declined KQED’s request to interview his client.

Witnesses who testified at a fall 2019 preliminary hearing said the priest told them they were cursed, rubbed oil on their genitals or convinced them they had to masturbate in front of him to be healed.

Some said they sought Castañeda’s guidance in times of difficulty in their lives: the end of a relationship, addiction to alcohol or drugs, and in one case, the death of a child, according to court testimony. Often ashamed and confused about the sessions in his office, but hopeful he could help them, some parishioners said they went back to Castañeda over and over for years. Others kept the alleged abuse hidden from their own family members who, they later discovered, were also alleged victims.

The case raises questions about the vulnerability of adults, including undocumented immigrants, to sexual abuse in the church, and reveals how religious institutions are struggling to respond — decades after the systemic cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church first came to light.

“You feel like — am I still a man? Or am I even man enough?” one alleged victim in the case told KQED. “I let another guy touch me. You feel like they stole your identity.”

Luis was one of at least two men who told Anglican church officials that Father Antonio Castañeda had sexually assaulted them for years during healing rituals involving prayer and massage that the priest said could heal them of their sexual sins. (Luis is a pseudonym. KQED is not using the real names of alleged sexual assault survivors in this story.)

Luis was one of at least two men who told Anglican church officials that Father Antonio Castañeda had sexually assaulted them for years during healing rituals involving prayer and massage that the priest said could heal them of their sexual sins. (Luis is a pseudonym. KQED is not using the real names of alleged sexual assault survivors in this story.) CREDIT: Alexandra Hall/KQED

‘Where Can I Find the Priest Who Performs Miracles?’

Former parishioners told KQED that they believed Castañeda truly healed people, which is why many have struggled to accept the allegations.

Castañeda came to Fresno around 2007 and began preparing to become an Anglican priest. Parishioners said he subscribed to healing practices that included laying hands on the body to cure illnesses and performed cleansing rituals involving white candles, sheets and rubbing oil and salt on the body.

Under Castañeda’s leadership, parishioners of Our Lady said they witnessed phenomena they still can’t explain: There was the story of the dying patient he brought back from life support, the man who parishioners said levitated off the floor while they prayed for him in an apparent exorcism led by the priest, and the woman whose cancer Castañeda said he had cured — purportedly removing a mass from her body — in front of the whole congregation.

At healing masses, Castañeda would place his hands above a parishioner’s head and they would fall to the ground, or “rest in the spirit” — having been overtaken by the Holy Spirit, former parishioners said.

“People would form these huge lines for him to massage them and for him to cure them. Because he cured everything,” Rosa Reynaga, one of Castañeda’s former assistants, told KQED.

Once, at a church yard sale, former parishioner Rosalina Rodriguez said she remembered overhearing a woman ask, “Where can I find the priest who performs miracles?”

Rodriguez said she heard Castañeda reply, “There is no priest here who performs miracles. It’s God.”

If a parishioner needed healing, Castañeda would meet with them privately in his office, several past congregants said.

Reynaga said she and other parishioners would often accompany Castañeda to people’s homes so he could pray for them. She said the priest told her some men needed healing because a former wife or girlfriend had cursed them.

“He’d say that their intimate parts were ‘tied’ so he had to massage them,” said Reynaga, adding that the priest would ask her to leave the room at a certain point during the prayer. She said she never saw him improperly touch anyone.

Some alleged victims said that Castañeda would have another person in the room assisting him during the so-called prayer massages. Witnesses to Castañeda’s healing rituals said the priest would claim to pull out yellow or black substances from people’s bodies.

Parishioners said Castañeda also told them he was a licensed psychologist. Attempts to find any record of Castañeda being licensed to practice psychology were unsuccessful.

“He played with people’s minds,” Rodriguez said. “He would say, ‘You have cancer,’ or ‘You have this illness, you have this or that.’ And he was always putting illnesses on people, so that he could then cure them.”

Court records show one former parishioner, José Magaña, told police that in 2015, Castañeda asked him to accompany the priest as he prayed for a young man suffering from drug addiction. Magaña said he witnessed Castañeda reach his hand up one of the leg holes of the man’s boxers and pull on his genitals as the man screamed. Magaña told police he left feeling confused and spiritually injured.

Magaña said he later told fellow parishioners about the incident. “I told them, you know, this happened. [They said] ‘Oh yeah, don’t worry. Yes, he does it. But it’s part of the prayer,’” Magaña said. “And I said, ‘But it’s not necessary.’”

In the Pentecostal and charismatic Catholic traditions, it is common for a faith leader to advertise himself as an instrument of God, said professor Kristy Nabhan-Warren, chair of Catholic studies at the University of Iowa.

“Wherever you have an intense patriarchy or intense concentration of power in any institution — Penn State, Michigan State, gymnastics with [Larry] Nassar — you will have abuse,” she said. “Folks might say, well, it’s a problem with just the Catholic Church. I would say that it’s a problem of concentration of power and lack of oversight.”

An Earlier Accusation

Years before anyone came forward in Fresno, the Catholic Church in Washington state had grappled with an accusation of misconduct against Castañeda. Records obtained by KQED show a former church volunteer claimed Castañeda had touched him inappropriately when Castañeda was pastor of St. Juan Diego parish, in Cowiche, a 20-minute drive northwest of Yakima, Washington, from 2003 to 2005.

In 2007, when the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin was considering hiring Castañeda, they contracted Oxford Document Management Company to perform a background check.

The company sent a questionnaire to the Catholic Diocese of Yakima, Castañeda’s former employer, asking questions including whether he had ever had sexual contact in a professional context.

Bishop Carlos A. Sevilla of the Yakima Diocese replied, saying he could not complete the questionnaire, but that Castañeda had been dismissed from the clerical state in the Catholic Church for “substantive and grave reasons.” A follow-up letter gave additional detail: Castañeda had been accused of violating the seal of confession.

Castañeda was ordained by the Anglican Diocese anyway in 2008.

The Catholic Diocese eventually looked into the former church volunteer’s allegation, according to an internal memo obtained by KQED.

The document, which is heavily redacted, summarizes a phone conversation between a private investigator and the man, who said he feared Castañeda because he “had a bad experience” with him. He told the investigator that Castañeda “abused his power” and would sometimes try to be “sexually aggressive” with him.

The man said that Castañeda had asked to examine him after he informed the priest that he had discovered a tumor in his testicle.

“Victim told him that he had already been to a doctor at which point Fr. Castañeda stated, ‘I’m a doctor and I am responsible for your health. You must let me see it,’” the document states. “Victim stated that, ‘Fr. Castañeda started touching me and telling me to let him check my testicles.’”

When the investigator asked whether Castañeda touched the man’s penis, he stated, “Yes, there and all over my testicles and then he said that everything looked okay,” according to the document.

The man said he became very upset with Castañeda, and “asked him if he was happy now,” the document states.

After the investigator’s interview with the former church volunteer, the Catholic Diocese in Yakima notified the Anglican Diocese in Fresno in August 2009 of the allegation.

But the Anglican bishop at the time, John-David Schofield, responded by saying he had interviewed Castañeda and that, “to the best of my ability, it appears to me Fr. Antonio has been wrongly accused.”

It is unclear if diocesan officials in Fresno ever told parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe about the allegation. Fifteen current and former parishioners — out of the 23 interviewed for this story — said they were never informed a past allegation was lodged against Castañeda. The remaining eight parishioners didn’t respond to follow-up calls about whether they had been informed.

When asked whether parishioners were notified of the allegation, the diocese’s current bishop, Menees, said in an email, “Due to the pending criminal and civil proceedings, I have been advised by counsel to make no comment.”

Three people have also filed a lawsuit against Castañeda and the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. They allege Castaneda sexually assaulted them and that the priest and the church violated their trust. The lawsuit claims the church was negligent in hiring and supervising Castañeda, resulting in infliction of emotional distress.

Last year, when the Yakima Diocese released its list of credibly accused priests, Castañeda was not on it. Msgr. Robert Siler explained that’s because Castañeda was never accused of abusing a minor.

“I think our legal system recognizes that adults have more capacity to say, ‘No,’ and to make reports and to come forward,” he said. “Now, we’re very concerned that culturally in the Hispanic community that there is a bigger problem in people’s reluctance to come forward or their inability to say ‘No.’ Certainly we need to pay attention to that.”

But Siler said the responsibility to not reoffend lies with Castañeda — not a church that previously employed him — and that “we did the best we could” to warn the Anglican Diocese.

“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,’” he said.

TIMELINE: From Ordination To Allegations

(Story continues below interactive graphic)

‘I Wanted to Be OK, So I Went Back’

Back in Fresno, Luis thought he was finally earning his family’s trust back by staying involved with the church and going to Castañeda’s office for the prayer massages.

Luis said the priest told him that because he had been with so many women, he was cursed. To figure out how he needed to be healed, he said, Castañeda told him he needed to see his semen.

“He said, ‘I have to see it, my boy. I have to cure whatever it is you have.’ … And I said, ‘No,’” Luis said, adding that the priest began requesting he remove his boxers for the sessions.

During one massage, Luis testified, Castañeda placed a towel over his lap and reached under the cloth — abruptly yanking hard on his penis. Luis said he abruptly doubled over in pain and tried to grab at Castañeda, but couldn’t.

He told Castañeda not to touch him there.

When Luis left the office, he said, his boxers were stained with blood. Luis said he felt that Castañeda manipulated him and other parishioners who were “anxious to be OK in our lives.”

Luis would later testify the sessions with Castañeda took place over the course of several years, beginning in approximately 2014.

“I had this gut feeling that I’m bad and I’m falling into the same things again. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to be OK,” Luis said. “So I went back again to his sessions.”

But being off drugs had given Luis a sense of clarity, too.

“I started realizing that, well, this wasn’t OK,” he said. “I had no idea how many people were going through the same thing as me.”

Defrocked Again

After parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe told Bishop Menees about Castañeda’s healing ministry in fall 2017, he said he confronted the priest about the allegations.

“His immediate response was to say, ‘Yes, I learned this healing ministry in India,’” Menees said in a June 2019 interview before he declined to comment further. “And I just said, ‘No, you didn’t.’”

Menees said priests often anoint parishioners by making the sign of the cross on the forehead.

“Touching anywhere else — and certainly disrobing — would always be absolutely forbidden,” he added.

While it is common in some Latin American countries and in immigrant communities in the U.S. to consult a traditional healer who uses massage, the contact is more about helping with tense muscles or a sprain, and never involves touching genitals, said Mario Gonzalez, deputy director of Centro la Familia, a nonprofit working with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office to assist victims of crimes.

“I don’t see a reason why a [healer] would make contact with that private area,” Gonzalez said.

That’s because there isn’t one, said UCLA psychology professor Paul R. Abramson, who works as an expert witness in civil and criminal sex abuse cases.

“If it’s on the genitals, the intent is sexual. He’s targeting people who won’t go to the police,” he said.

After the men came forward, the Anglican Diocese immediately suspended Castañeda from priestly duties. Menees said Castañeda signed a statement admitting to some of what was alleged.

Court records show another priest with the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin told police that Castañeda agreed to make an announcement taking responsibility for his actions at an upcoming Sunday mass, but didn’t show up.

He was permanently removed from the Anglican Church shortly thereafter, Menees said, adding that Castañeda later retracted his statement.

Fresno police investigated Castañeda for over a year and arrested him in February 2019. The following day, police and prosecutors held a press conference urging more victims to come forward.

“The victims that have been contacted thus far [are] Spanish-speaking for the most part, and they are undocumented,” said Jerry Dyer, Fresno’s police chief at the time. “That seems to be who he is preying upon.”

At the press conference, Dyer said detectives believed Castañeda had sexually abused hundreds of people. Officers came up with the estimate by looking at the number of people who had come forward so far, times the number of years Castañeda had been an active priest in California and Washington, Dyer said later in an interview.

Parishioner Magaña said he spoke with several men who revealed they were abused after allegations against Castañeda were made public.

“I asked them, how did you allow it?” Magaña said. “They wanted to heal. They were sick and they wanted to heal.”

The Reinvented Priest

Several months after Castañeda was bailed out of jail, he held Sunday mass inside a rented space in Fresno at his new church, Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, or Holy Spirit Church.

After being defrocked by the Catholic and Anglican churches, he had been ordained a minister by the World Communion of Christian Celtic Convergence Churches, headquartered in the United Kingdom. The organization’s website says it’s open to ordain bishops, priests and deacons who “have failed previously in church leadership,” regardless of their “history, status and damage.”

Menees said many former members of Our Lady followed Castañeda to his new church.

“He never touched anybody,” said Flor Hernandez, who along with her husband, Javier Hernandez, left the Anglican church to follow him.

Hernandez, who has collected letters of support for the priest, said she was in the room once or twice when Castañeda met one-on-one with parishioners and never witnessed abuse.

“When he held mass, it was overcrowded,” she said while showing a photo of a church filled to capacity and Castañeda holding his hands over a woman’s head.

During the priest’s preliminary court hearing in fall 2019, his supporters attended and audibly chuckled, scoffed and shook their heads during witness testimony.

“For me, all of this that happened was because of jealousy,” parishioner Imelda Cruz said after one of Castañeda’s Sunday services.

Castañeda’s supporters have repeatedly pointed out that some accusers were once the priest’s closest allies and helped him with his healing ministry.

Bruce Taylor, the North America archbishop of Castañeda’s current church, said the organization did not run a background check on Castañeda before hiring him because he had already been ordained and screened by two other dioceses.

Taylor said Castañeda underwent a psychological evaluation, and he required that the priest be interviewed by three women who he said had been sexually abused as children.

“Women who have that kind of history have a sixth sense,” Taylor said. “They called me back and said, ‘No, he’s not like that. No, he couldn’t have done this.’”

Taylor suggested that the priest’s accusers could be making false allegations to obtain legal status.

“Illegal immigrants can become legal if a crime is committed against them. This could be a factor motivating false accusations being made against Fr. Antonio,” Taylor told KQED in an email.

Castañeda’s attorney Torres, has also asked witnesses in court whether they applied to change their immigration status in exchange for testifying.

It is unclear how many of the alleged victims have applied for U visas — for victims of crimes who cooperate with law enforcement in investigating or prosecuting a criminal case. But community advocates and police have pushed back, saying coming forward puts accusers under even more scrutiny by federal officials.

“Who would make up such a lie just to get a document? Who would expose themselves to court cases, to criminal background checks, to the discretion of USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)?” said Gonzalez of Centro la Familia.

In the meantime, Castañeda’s parishioners continue to flock to his services. Since California’s stay-at-home order brought a temporary halt to in-person religious services, the priest has delivered sermons to parishioners who attend both in person and virtually via Facebook Live.

“We have faith that the truth is going to come out,” said Flor Hernandez.

Do you have information or story tips you would like to share?
Email the reporter: [email protected]. Twitter: @chalexhall

Copyright 2020 KQED. To see more, visit kqed.org

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