California

Trial begins for Carlsbad priest accused of groping seminarian

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A trial began in Vista on Wednesday for a Catholic priest accused of groping a seminary student in his 30s. The Rev. Juan Castillo has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery charges.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune file)

The drinks were flowing heavily in a Carlsbad bar on that Saturday night in early February, a Catholic seminary student said, so much so that he headed to the bathroom to throw up.

While he was standing in the stall and vomiting, the priest he had been drinking with reached around him and groped his genitals, the student, 34, testified in a Vista courtroom on Wednesday.

“I couldn’t leave because I was puking,” the accuser said. “I was panicked.”

His testimony came on the first day of trial for the priest, the Rev. Juan Castillo, who has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of sexual battery.

The 35-year-old priest, who had been with a Carlsbad parish at the time, has pleaded not guilty. He faces up to six months in jail if convicted.

Castillo’s attorney, Victor Pippins, has said his client “absolutely denies the allegations.”

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The Rev. Juan Castillo
(Photo courtesy Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego)

During his opening statement Wednesday, Pippins told the jury the case was one of “he said, he said — and one of [them] was drunk, and there is no corroborating evidence.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Joshua Brisbane told the jury that the evidence will show that Castillo “wanted an opportunity to make a sexual move” on the seminary student.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego said in September that the bishop removed Castillo from his assignment as an associate priest at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Carlsbad on Feb. 4, the same day church officials had learned of the allegation by the seminary student.

The Union-Tribune does not identify alleged victims of sex crimes.

The accuser — a former military prosecutor who had left the service to become a priest —testified about meeting Castillo, then a stranger to him, at a church function on Feb. 3 and agreeing later to go out for a drink afterward. The student invited another seminarian, a fellow student who was also at St. Patrick church that day.

The three men met up at a Carlsbad brewery, and hung out there for nearly five hours, accuser testified. The conversation had turned “bizarre” after midnight, after the priest started talking about the finer points of celibacy and chastity, the witness said.

The accuser also said Castillo had been encouraging him to continue drinking that night, goading him and mocking him when he refused another drink.

Sometime before 1 a.m. on Feb. 4, the seminary student felt ill and headed to the bathroom, he testified, and once there, arms braced against the stall walls, he stood over the toilet and vomited.

He said that’s when he realized Castillo was behind him. He said the priest asked him if he was OK — and as the student was throwing up, the priest reached around and began to massage his genitals.

He said he shrugged Castillo off, but said Castillo did it a second time.

He said he was soon able to tell Castillo to “get away.”

“I walked out of the stall, and I look at myself in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh my God, what has happened to me?’” the accuser said.

He paused at a few points in his testimony, saying it was hard to relive the incident.

“This was no mistake,” he said. “He was trying to get me going.”

The former attorney — he had been both a prosecutor and defense attorney in the military — said he had concerns about coming forward. He knew there were no witnesses, he thought people might not believe him and he feared there would be repercussions for having gotten so intoxicated as a seminary student.

The witness was still testifying when court ended for the day, and had not yet been cross-examined. His testimony will continue Thursday.

Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

teri.figueroa@sduniontribune.com