Witness in Fresno sex abuse case says he trusted priest ‘because he was close to God’

Jesus Antonio Serna
Jesus Antonio Serna

A 59-year-old man suffering from diabetes testified Thursday he was hopeful an Anglican priest rumored to have special healing powers could make him feel better.

But the witness said the priest, Jesus Antonio Castaneda Serna, didn’t cure him of anything that day in 2017.

Fresno police say the priest’s healing massage was nothing more than a pretext for allowing him to sexually abuse his male followers.

Serna was arrested in February and has pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of felony sexual battery involving 10 male members of his former church, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe church in Fresno.

He was in court Thursday for a preliminary hearing. Judge Jane Cardoza will decide if there is enough evidence for him to stand trial. If found guilty, he could face 23 years and six months in prison.

Thursday’s testimony was the second from an alleged victim in the case. The alleged victim testified he was lured to Serna’s church out of a need for spiritual help.

After attending a few of the meetings, he was surprised to find Serna asking the men whether their wives were sexually satisfied.

Prosecutor Kelly Smith asked the witness why he agreed to meet Serna for a private meeting, including getting a healing massage.

“I trusted him because he was close to God,” the alleged victim said. “It’s understood that they are people who will help us spiritually.”

The man testified that he met Serna in his office, and the priest asked him to disrobe and rubbed oil on his body. There was also an assistant in the room, standing behind the alleged victim.

“He told me he was going to heal me,” the man testified. “He started massaging me and then he grabbed my private parts...He was asking me where do I feel the most satisfaction?”

The alleged victim testified that he told Serna he didn’t like what was happening, so he got dressed and left the office. He also never went back to the church or spoke to Serna.

Serna’s defense attorney Ralph Torres pressed the witness on why he believed someone like Serna had special powers to cure his diabetes.

He said he wanted to believe that Serna could help him because he was a man of God.

“He had such devoted followers,” he said. “And all the people assured me he could help.”

The Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin relieved Serna of his pastoral and priestly ministry in October 2017 after Bishop Eric Menees received credible information Serna had committed sexual misconduct.

Serna was officially stripped of his duties on Nov. 24, 2017.

The preliminary hearing continues Friday at 1:30 p.m.