Abuse Trial Begins for Fresno Priest
Jury Will Decide Whether a Former Altar Boy Was Molested As a Teen
By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
November 29, 2006
On one side of the Fresno courtroom stood the plaintiff — former altar boy Juan Rocha, 31, and a decorated Army staff sergeant.
The defendant is Father Eric Swearingen, 45, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fresno's Woodward Park.
In a civil trial that began Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court, jurors have to determine whether Swearingen sexually molested Rocha in the late 1980s and early '90s when he was between 12 and 15 years old.
Lawyers agreed that Swearingen allowed Rocha to sleep in his room at church rectories in Fresno and Bakersfield. In dispute is what happened behind closed doors.
Swearingen said he is innocent. Rocha is seeking damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno for emotional distress from the alleged child abuse. The amount has not yet been disclosed.
At stake is the reputation of a priest, as well as the faith of thousands of families in Fresno, Bakersfield and elsewhere.
Rocha wore his Army uniform and Swearingen wore dark clerical clothing and a white collar as lawyers gave their opening statements in Judge Donald S. Black's courtroom.
Rocha's lawyers, Larry and David Drivon, of Stockton, said their client was raised in Shafter in Kern County by an abusive and alcoholic father and a mother overwhelmed by caring for her children.
At age 12, Rocha, an altar boy, found a friend in Swearingen, who let the boy live in his room off and on at the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Bakersfield, Larry Drivon told jurors.
Since 1929, the diocese has had a written policy that prohibits lay people from living in the rectory to prevent suspicion of sexual abuse, Drivon said.
Swearingen ignored the policy, said Drivon, and went into detail about the priest's alleged assault on Rocha.
The living arrangement ended when another priest complained, Drivon said. Rocha returned home and Swearingen ended up being transferred to St. Alphonsus Church in southwest Fresno.
Rocha's life at home was bleak, so he ran away at age 15, Drivon said. He took a bus to Fresno, where Swearingen picked him up at the bus station, the lawyer said.
In Fresno, Swearingen allowed Rocha to live in his room at the rectory for months. That relationship ended when church officials learned of the living arrangements, Drivon said.
Rocha then drifted through life, sleeping on the streets and drinking heavily, Drivon said. He had sex with dozens of women, which Drivon said was his attempt to prove he was not homosexual.
Rocha joined the Marines in October 1993, but quit after a few months. After drifting around for several years, he joined the Army in 1999 and became a decorated soldier, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now a happily married man with two children.
"He changed his life," Drivon told jurors.
The diocese's lawyer, Carey Johnson, however, said Rocha has an anti-social personality disorder and is a habitual liar who conned his way out of the Marines more than a decade ago.
He also said Swearingen didn't know about the diocese's policy against having lay people live in the rectory. Johnson told jurors about a priest who allowed his adopted child to live with him in the rectory.
Swearingen grew up in Riverdale and Visalia and joined the priesthood after graduating from Redwood High School in 1979. Johnson said Swearingen has devoted his life to helping others, including Rocha.
Johnson said a key piece of evidence is a report by a military psychiatrist who examined Rocha before he left the Marines. According to the report, Rocha said his father physically abused him and that Rocha drank heavily and was promiscuous with women. Rocha, however, never told the military psychiatrist that he was abused by a priest, Johnson said.
The case is one of three sex-abuse lawsuits filed against the Fresno Diocese in 2002 and 2003 that have not been settled or dismissed. Two cases have been settled in the past three months — one for $875,000 and another for $650,000. Two others were dismissed last month and are being appealed.
Bishop John J. Steinbock, who leads the eight-county Fresno Diocese that includes more than 500,000 Catholics, said in a statement this month that "Father Eric is absolutely innocent."
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or(559) 441-6434.
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