An associate pastor charged with raping at least 20 members of his Norwalk church was described by congregants as "a wolf in sheep's clothing" who was "likea magnet to women."
Jorge Juan Castro, 54, targeted female members of Nuevas Buenas Church who were undocumented immigrants and only spoke Spanish, assaulting them at the church or during home visits, authorities said Thursday.
He was arrested and charged last week in connection with the alleged crimes, which Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said date back 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, authorities said.
"He claimed to have healing hands and ulitized that process to eventually sexually assault them," L.A. 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."
Sheriff's officials launched their investigation in April after they were notified by a third party whom many of the alleged victims had confided in.
Church leaders removed Castro upon learning of the case, Esson said, and detectives went to the mostly Spanish-speaking congregation in hopes of gathering more information.
Some victims provided evidence to detectives and their allegations led to the charges, Sgt. Al Garcia said.
After surveillance by undercover major-crimes detectives, Castro was arrested Sept. 13 at his home in Norwalk and later charged with six felony counts including rape, penetration by a foreign object and oral copulation. The number of charges is expected to rise as authorities look for more potential victims.
Only four of the alleged victims have come forward, 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."
Parishioners at the church said Thursday 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 said she had prayed alone with Castro, who also would eat lunch with her mother. She described him as an attractive, popular pastor -- "like a magnet to women."
Her sister, Carmen Pichardo, said she was a close friend to Castro and his family, noting the pastor helped her through a difficult divorce a few years ago. She called the allegations "devastating."
The Pichardos’ 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 from 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?"