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Catholic priest awaits trial in alleged assault of San Diego seminarian

A Catholic priest has been suspended from his duties at a Carlsbad church as he awaits trial on a charge that he groped an adult seminary student earlier this year.

Juan Garcia Castillo, 35, has pleaded not guilty to one misdemeanor count alleging sexual battery of the victim. The accuser, a man around Castillo’s age, quickly reported the alleged incident, which happened in early February.

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Castillo’s attorney said Friday that his client “absolutely denies the allegations” made against him.

News of the criminal case against Castillo surfaced this week as the Roman Catholic Church grapples with a new wave of reported sexual abuse by clergy members and accusations that church officials covered it up.

The local case also creeps into headlines a week after Bishop Robert McElroy, who leads the Diocese of San Diego, announced a town hall tour at local parishes to address the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church for years.

As for Castillo’s case, officials and attorneys have been mum on the specifics of the allegation.

But church officials confirmed that McElroy removed Castillo from his assignment as an associate priest at St. Patrick Catholic Church on Feb. 4 — the same day church officials learned of the “credible allegation” against him, a spokesman for the diocese said.

“When we were informed of the allegations, we suspended him,” said Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego.

In May, three months after the incident was reported to police and church officials, the San Diego County district attorney’s office filed one count against Castillo, charging him with misdemeanor sexual battery.

In a brief hearing Friday, a judge set a trial date for Dec. 11 in Vista Superior Court.

After the hearing Castillo’s attorney, Victor Pippins, said his client “absolutely denies he did anything inappropriate in this case.”

“We set a trial because my client has dedicated his life to the Catholic Church,” Pippins said. “And obviously these allegations challenge his ability to remain with the Catholic Church and really to live his dream of being a Catholic priest.”

Pippins said his client is “put in a disadvantageous situation” given the resurgence of national news regarding allegations of priests molesting children.

“But I feel very strongly about the facts of this case,” Pippins said, “and if I am able to keep the jury in this case focused on the facts of the case and the credibility of the witnesses, I am very confident of what the outcome will be because this is very different than the cases in the media right now.”

Castillo started his assignment at St. Patrick in Carlsbad — a parish serving about 3,000 families — in 2011. The following year he was assigned to St. James in Solana Beach, then returned to St. Patrick in 2014.

When Castillo was suspended — without pay — he was also ordered to move out of the rectory. He did so immediately.

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Eckery said Castillo is responsible for paying for his own legal representation in the criminal case.

The spokesman said St. Patrick parishioners were told in February that Castillo had left the parish, but church officials did not share the reason for his departure so as not to hinder the police investigation.

Eckery said parishioners will be told more about the Castillo matter this weekend.

News of the charge against Castillo first surfaced earlier this week in a story by the Catholic News Agency.

Sex abuse scandals have rocked the Roman Catholic Church for years after a 2002 Boston Globe investigative series uncovered allegations that clergy members had sexually abused children for decades, and church leaders covered it up.

The abuse scandal drew renewed national attention this summer with a Pennsylvania grand jury report alleging that more than 1,000 children had been abused by clergy in that state, and that church leaders had covered it up.

This summer also saw the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, who was accused of sexually assaulting altar boys, seminarians and priests.

Those news stories prompted the Diocese of San Diego this month to add eight priests to the list of those believed to have molested children.

Bishop McElroy also announced a “listening tour,” with eight public forums in October and November to address the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

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