A Carlsbad priest accused of groping a seminary student’s groin twice in a restroom stall during a night of heavy drinking testified this week that he was merely trying to put pressure on the man’s stomach to help with vomiting.
The Rev. Juan Garcia Castillo’s testimony Friday came during the third day of his misdemeanor sexual battery trial in Vista Superior Court. The jury spent an hour deliberating and is expected to continue Monday.
He faces up to six months in jail if convicted.
Taking the witness stand for the entire morning, Castillo, 35, testified that he did touch the 33-year-old vomiting student from behind in the bathroom, but it was in no way sexual.
He said he put one hand on the student’s back. “I tried to put my other hand on his stomach,” Castillo said.
He explained why: “My mom always put pressure on my stomach to calm down, stop the vomiting. That’s what I was taught as a kid.”
The student testified otherwise, saying Castillo’s hand found his groin, where he massaged and pulled on his genitals in a clear move to get him aroused. He asked the priest to go away twice.
“This was no mistake. He was trying to get me going,” the student testified. The Union-Tribune does not name the victims of sex crimes.
When asked if Castillo might have accidentally touched the student’s genitals, Castillo replied: “I don’t remember. It might have happened accidentally as he was bending over.”
The trial was striking in that — except for the sexual battery allegation — there was little dispute in the testimony about what happened the night of Feb. 3 and into the early morning hours of Feb. 4. The trial instead focused on perceptions, or, the defense argued, misperceptions.
“We have a difference of recollection that is inches,” argued Castillo’s attorney, Victor Pippins, during closing arguments. He added: “I don’t think (the student) is lying. I think he is mistaken, and there is not a large margin of error.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Joshua Brisbane countered: “This wasn’t some rubbing of a belly. It was sexual battery.”
The alleged victim — a Navy lawyer who left his career to join the priesthood — first met Castillo earlier that day at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Carlsbad, where Castillo was an associate pastor. The accuser and his seminary classmate were there to announce an event for males considering seminary.
Castillo invited the two students out for drinks following the evening mass he led.
The priest immediately ordered a round of Long Island iced teas for the trio. Both students said they would have ordered different drinks, but they deferred to Castillo.
The conversation was flowing well, as the three bonded over shared experiences of seminary studies and the pressures of the priesthood. Castillo made sure the Long Islands kept flowing, as well.
The priest admitted he’d been pushy with the drinks, but he said that was part of his nature. “I do that with my friends when I’m drinking. It’s part of my personality to be friendly, be pushy.”
Castillo also wasn’t shy about reaching over and touching the accuser during conversation, messing with his hair and taking hold of his hand at times. That was also natural behavior, the priest said.
“By nature, as a Latino, I’m a very touchy person,” Castillo told the jury. “I use my hands a lot, especially when I’m drinking.”
The differences between Castillo and the two students became more marked as the night wore on. Castillo saw them as naive, moralistic, rigid in doctrine and conservative rule-followers. The students found Castillo to have questionable interpretations of Catholic teachings. They balked at many of the priest’s statements, including advice to befriend rich parishioners to get gifts and that fornication was less of a sin than masturbation.
Castillo said the meaning of the comments was misunderstood. He said he did at times accept gifts from parishioners and clarified that he never told the students it was OK to fornicate.
In text messages to the student after the bathroom incident, Castillo offered several apologies, although never clearly stated what he was apologizing for.
In his testimony, Castillo said he was apologizing for pushing the drinks on them all night, causing the victim to get sick.
Brisbane argued the apologies were clearly written in the context of the student’s sexual accusation. He said the best demonstration of that is one of the student’s texts: “Dude, I won’t sexually come on to seminarians.”
“I’m sorry,” Castillo responded in the next text. “I’m so sorry.”
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.