“Disturbing” Behavior Gets Gun-Toting Fresno Priest Barred From His Own Church November 7, 2020

“Disturbing” Behavior Gets Gun-Toting Fresno Priest Barred From His Own Church

Restraining orders aren’t part of the standard internal investigation into misconduct by a Catholic priest, but the case of Father Guadalupe Rios (below) isn’t in any way standard.

First of all, if you think you know why Rios is being investigated, guess again. In a refreshing change of pace, the Diocese of Fresno (California) confirms that “this matter does not concern misconduct or sexual abuse of a minor.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that some of Rios’ parishioners are afraid for their lives.

Consequently, Rios has been legally ordered to keep no less than 100 yards from St. Joseph’s Church in Selma, notable as the church where Selma’s own Mayor Scott Robertson attends services. He’s also banned from the diocesan offices, and he’s not allowed to approach certain members of the parish staff. Even the local bishop has filed a restraining order.

After Bishop Joseph Brennan announced to the parishioners that Rios would be absent for what he (somewhat euphemistically) called “administrative leave,” some of the faithful admitted that they were afraid of Father Rios.

Not only did the priest have well-known connections to gang activity — some believed he was actually a member of a gang that would enact retribution if they talked to the media — but he had also posed on social media brandishing weapons on more than one occasion. Those interviewed mentioned an AK-47, an AR-556, and a .357 Magnum. The latter two were actually found on church grounds and seized by Selma police officers.

But even more disturbing was his relationship with the parish secretary, Molly Bustillos — the woman with whom he had a turbulent romantic relationship for five years.

In petitioning for the restraining order, the diocese characterized that relationship as physically and emotionally abusive. Bustillos agrees, and offered a declaration of her support for a restraining order that would legally bar Rios from contact with her and her children.

Bustillos says Rios was a habitual user of drugs and alcohol, and prone to dangerous behavior when intoxicated. She said the substances made him feel suicidal. Court records support this statement; Rios was convicted in 2016 of driving with a blood alcohol content more than twice the legal limit.

Bustillos also related a particularly scary story about an exchange with Rios last February:

Mr. Rios and I were in his rectory when he put a gun to his head in front of me. As I started to cry in shock, I asked him what he was doing, and he said to me, “Either I’m going to die or you are or we both are.” Due to his past as a gang member and the gangster friends he hangs out with, I’m afraid for my safety and for my family. His guns are accessible and since he threatened me before with killing me, I’m afraid when he finds out about the Diocese knowing the truth about him, he would come after me in retaliation against me.

Most media coverage of the event has focused on Rios’ gang connections, which are a significant part of the story. But his history of violent and unstable behavior in his illicit relationship with Bustillos is the real horror at the heart of it all. Knowing about it sets the other behavior — flaunting his arsenal, maintaining gang ties — in context: it’s controlling, a veiled threat. If you displease me, he seems to say, I have ways of making you pay.

Melanie Sakoda, a support specialist for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), tactfully described the photographs “a little disturbing” in terms of its optics. She acknowledges a thread of coercion in the relationship right down to its very roots in the unequal power dynamic between Rios and Bustillos:

You have a double pressure there. Not only is he a priest, but he’s your employer, you know? Your job is dependent on him. So I think it’s very easy for someone to be sexually abused in that situation.

On top of that, Rios’ vow of celibacy gives him a ready-made reason to keep the relationship secret, isolating Bustillos from potential support. It’s a big, beautiful bouquet of red flags.

(It is worth noting, Sakoda pointed out, that relationships violating the strictures around priestly celibacy are common within the Catholic Church. While fewer than 10% of priests participate in the well-known tradition of child abuse, an estimated 50% of priests are engaged in forbidden sexual relationships, heterosexual or homosexual.)

The explosive combination of relationship violence, unstable behavior, substance abuse, gang links, and weapons was enough to secure the restraining order. Rios has the option of fighting it in court come January, but legal analyst Ralph Torres says that might not be the best call:

There’s an undercurrent here of criminal conduct. You don’t want to go into a courtroom and assert certain things on the record that may affect your ability to fight this case criminally.

That said, the Selma police say they haven’t received any criminal complaints related to Rios’ potentially violent tendencies.

(Thanks to Renee for the link)

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