An associate pastor suspected of sexually assaulting at least 20 members of his Norwalk church told the women he had "healing hands" and threatened to call immigration officials if they reported him, authorities said.
Detectives alleged that Jorge Juan Castro, 54, targeted women at Las Buenas Nuevas Church who were in the country illegally and spoke only Spanish, assaulting them at the church or during home visits.
Los Angeles County sheriff's officials say the incidents date to his arrival in Los Angeles from Argentina in 2004.
Castro allegedly told the women the sex acts were part of a faith healing process.
"He claimed to have healing hands and utilized that process to eventually sexually assault them," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Robert Esson said. "He preyed upon them from a trust position. He warned them they'd be the subject of ridicule in the church if they told others."
Castro was arrested last week at his home in Norwalk and charged with six felony counts, including rape, penetration by a foreign object and oral copulation.
Castro is being held on $2-million bail after a court appearance earlier this week.
Officials said the charges involve two women but that detectives believe there are at least 20 victims, based on their investigation so far. The number of charges is expected to rise.
Only four of the women have come forward, Sgt. Al Garcia said. The rest fear deportation.
"We're here to tell the victims and any other potential victims that law enforcement is here to help them," Garcia said. "We will not report them to immigration. We're not going to deport them. We're here to help them."
Sheriff's officials launched their investigation in April after they were notified by a third party who had talked to many of the victims. Church leaders removed Castro from the church upon learning of the case, Esson said, and detectives went to the mostly Spanish-speaking congregation in hopes of gathering more information.
Some women provided evidence to detectives, and their allegations led to the charges, Garcia said.
Church members said Thursday that they were stunned by the news. Resting her head against the iron fence surrounding the church, Nancy Pichardo, 36, called Castro a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
"He showed us a completely different face," she said. "I don't know who that person is."
Pichardo described Castro as an attractive, popular pastor who played a major role in the lives of her relatives. Pichardo said she prayed alone with Castro, who also ate lunch with her mother and helped her sister through a difficult divorce.
She said she had never heard anyone from the church complain about his behavior.
Though Castro's dismissal angered church members — some left the congregation — Pichardo said rumors soon began circulating about why Castro left.
The congregation was never told anything other than that the pastor had his reasons, Pichardo said. "Everyone was assuming he had had an affair or that he had stolen money," she said.
Pichardo said many church members felt the lead pastor, the Rev. Cristian Hernaiz, was hard on Castro, saying he told them not to give Castro money or food, and not to "be caressing his sin." Hernaiz could not be reached for comment.
Pichardo's mother, who declined to give her name, said she felt numb.
"With all this information, I just don't know how to feel," she said. "He was my friend, my counselor, and he'd prayed with us."
The women began crying when they saw Castro's mug shot and the allegations in a sheriff's bulletin.
"I just can't believe it, I just can't," Pichardo's mother said, looking at his picture. "What happened to him?"