Home Christian News California Pastor Pleads Not Guilty in Mandatory Reporter Case

California Pastor Pleads Not Guilty in Mandatory Reporter Case

Victory Outreach Church
Eric Merino preaches at Victory Outreach Church. Screengrab from YouTube / @VOSANYSIDRO

For the first time, San Diego County prosecutors have charged someone with failing to report child abuse as mandated by law. The district attorney’s office alleges that Eric Manuel Merino, pastor of Victory Outreach Church in San Ysidro, California, neglected to inform authorities after learning of an abuse accusation against the church’s choir leader.

Merino, who was arraigned on June 6, pleaded not guilty to the one misdemeanor count. If convicted, the 43-year-old faces up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. His attorney said the pastor cooperated with investigators and “wholly adhered to all mandatory reporting obligations” related to clergy.

Victory Outreach Church Pastor Allegedly Learned That Church Choir Leader Assaulted a Teen

Prosecutors said the case dates back to November 2021, when Victory Outreach Church choir leader Rafael Valentin Magana sexually assaulted a teenage church member in his car. They had been attending a baby shower at another church member’s home, and then Magana gave the 15-year-old girl a ride home. After the victim reported the incident to police in March 2023, an investigation began.

Magana was arrested last summer and pleaded guilty in April to a felony charge of a lewd act on a child age 14 or 15. When sentenced next week, Magana faces up to three years in prison and will be required to register as a sex offender.

It’s unclear who informed Pastor Merino of the sexual assault or how. But prosecutors say after the pastor learned about it, that triggered “his legal duty to notify law enforcement or child welfare services.”

RELATED: Should Clergy Be Mandated Reporters? New York’s Care Act Says Yes

In California, people working in professions deemed mandatory reporters must inform authorities immediately and then submit a written report within 36 hours. The state law contains exceptions for “penitential communication,” such as sacramental confession.

An attorney not involved with this case said most pastors take a “very broad view” of what they consider to be protected communication, while most laws are “very narrow.”

Pastor Merino’s attorney, Brian Carter, said, “Clergy members are tasked with the vital role of maintaining trust and confidence while counseling churchgoers in a pastoral capacity on sensitive religious matters that are not always black and white.” He added that Merino “does not condone the underlying conduct” that led to the police investigation.