By Elise Schmelzer, Daily Camera
When she was 15 years old, Candy Orona Villalba’s pastor asked her to come live with her in a Broomfield apartment.
For the next three years, the pastor, Erika Gonzalez, sexually abused the teen, convinced her to drop out of school and said that Villalba would be punished by God if she left, Broomfield police and prosecutors allege in court documents.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time that I heal from it,” Villalba, now 19, said in an interview Thursday with The Denver Post.
More than a year after she left the pastor’s apartment — and three months before a scheduled jury trial in the case — Villalba said she is telling her story publicly because she doesn’t want others to be victimized by the 36-year-old Gonzalez, who appears to have continued preaching at her church, Ministerios Rey de Reyes.
The independent Christian church with a congregation of a few dozen people is unaffiliated to any larger denomination and operates out of rented space in Broomfield, Villalba said.
Gonzalez now faces three sexual-assault counts — including sexual assault of a child by a person in a position of trust — as well as a misdemeanor charge of obstructing the use of a telephone in connection to her relationship with Villalba.
Gonzalez’s attorney declined to comment on the allegations when contacted by a reporter. In a police interview last year, Gonzalez admitted to having what she called a consensual relationship with the teen. Her trial is scheduled for October.
The case comes as inquiries into abuse by religious leaders expands outside of those in the Catholic Church, which long has been a target of scrutiny. The Southern Baptists are grappling with the issue after an investigation by local newspapers in Texas found that 250 church leaders and volunteers had been charged with sex crimes. A network of bloggers has chronicled abuse in Protestant churches. And in Colorado, leaders of a Buddhist retreat center apologized after allegations of a pattern failing to respond to sexual-abuse claims.
It’s unclear how prevalent sexual abuse is in religions outside the Catholic Church, said Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University who has studied abuse by religious leaders. The ability to track abuse in any particular organization often depends on the church’s own record keeping and bureaucracy. For a church not affiliated with any national group, like Ministerios Rey de Reyes, it can be particularly difficult to root out problems.
“You’re really dependent on victim reports, on family reports,” Jenkins said. “There aren’t outside authorities to provide checks and balances.”
The lack of hierarchy at Ministerios Rey de Reyes left Villalba without many options to report her experiences. She felt totally alone, she said.
“Couldn’t say no”
Villalba met Gonzalez when she started attending the pastor’s church in 2015. The two soon developed a friendship and Villalba went to the pastor for advice and for religious guidance, the teen said.
Gonzalez often took Villalba on nighttime home visits to other members of the congregation. Villalba now believes that Gonzalez scheduled the visits for evenings so that the two would be together late at night.
Gonzalez first kissed Villalba at a park after a church celebration, Villalba said. The kiss made her uncomfortable, but she didn’t know what to say. She was scared and worried that she had misled Gonzalez or done something wrong.
“I was pretty clueless at the time,” Villalba said. “I wish I wasn’t.”
Gonzalez later promoted Villalba to youth leader of the church and the pastor’s sexual advances continued, according to an arrest affidavit. In October 2015, Gonzalez, then 32, asked Villalba if she would be her girlfriend while the two were sitting in the nursery of the church. Villalba said she agreed because she didn’t take it seriously and wanted the awkward situation to end.
“I couldn’t say no,” she said.
Villalba said she never told Gonzalez to stop performing sexual acts on her because she was afraid to do so. Gonzalez told the teen that if she left their relationship that Villalba and her family would be punished by God. Villalba, who was religiously devout at the time, believed her.
Villalba soon started staying the night at Gonzalez’s Broomfield apartment and later moved in. Villalba said she moved in because she was worried about Gonzalez’s children who lived there and because she was afraid to say no.
Villalba’s mother resisted the move, but didn’t stop it. She later told police she disproved of her daughter moving in with Gonzalez, but she trusted the pastor and was happy to see her daughter become more committed to their faith.
While living in the apartment, Villalba said she was subject to painful sexual abuse. Gonzalez convinced her to drop out of high school to focus on her relationship with God, and Villalba said she soon became like a servant in the home — cleaning, cooking and caring for Gonzalez’s children, she told police. If she didn’t do a good job, she would be slapped, Villalba said. Gonzalez routinely insulted her for her looks. She wasn’t allowed to hold a job or learn to drive, Villalba said.
Gonzalez also threatened to tell Villalba’s family about the teen’s sexuality if she spoke out or disobeyed. Villalba is a lesbian but hadn’t come out to her mother yet.
“Felt like a prisoner”
The teen thought about leaving multiple times, but was too afraid. She didn’t tell anybody about what was happening to her, in part because she no longer had any friends outside the church, she said. Twice she attempted to kill herself, but survived.
“I felt like a prisoner,” she said.
Villalba’s mother told police she would go visit the apartment sometimes and had seen Gonzalez and her daughter kissing. She tried to get the teen to leave the pastor, but Villalba always said that she was too afraid and that she would be punished by God if she did.
Despite the fear, Villalba on May 8, 2018, decided to leave. As she packed up her belongings, Gonzalez pushed her into a closet. Afraid for her safety, Villalba called her sister, who called police.
At the scene, Broomfield police arrested Gonzalez on suspicion of domestic violence and, after further investigation, they added sexual assault charges.
When contacted by a Broomfield police officer in May 2018, Gonzalez confirmed that she had a sexual relationship with Villalba but said it was consensual and that the teen’s mother knew about the relationship and approved, according to her arrest affidavit.
Villalba earned her GED in June and enrolled in college classes this week. She’s found some stability, but is worried that Gonzalez will abuse another girl.
Gonzalez still calls herself a pastor, a video posted to YouTube last week shows. A video posted to the church’s Facebook page in June 2018 — a month after Gonzalez’s arrest on domestic violence charges — shows the pastor leading a church service.
“It angers me that she’s doing what she’s doing, that she’s using the name of God to get more victims,” Villalba said.