Fresno Priest Takes Stand in Molestation Case
By Liz Harrison
December 4, 2006
12/04/06 - A Fresno priest, accused of sexually abusing a teen, told jurors his side of the story Monday. Army Staff Sergeant Juan Rocha claims he was molested while staying overnight with Father Eric Swearingen.
Father Eric Swearingen has been waiting four years to tell his side of this story. He is a practicing priest at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in North Fresno.
While on the stand he told of several visits Rocha made to his personal living quarters but the priest denied ever sexually abusing the former altar boy.
In October of 2002, Staff Sergeant Rocha announced in front of Fresno's Catholic Church offices. That he was suing the Fresno Diocese for sexual abuse suffered at the hands of one of its priests.
Rocha claims Father Eric Swearingen molested him over a period of three years at two different churches, one in Bakersfield and at St. Alphonsus Church in Southwest Fresno.
But Father Swearingen told jurors he was innocent. His attorney asked him twice, "Did you sexually molest Juan Rocha."
The priest answered twice, "No, I did not."
Swearingen did acknowledge Rocha had stayed overnight at both church rectories. He said Rocha would show up unannounced and he would allow him to stay. Even though, it is church policy to keep all lay people out of a priests living quarters.
Defense Attorney Carey Johnson says Father Swearingen never knew of the policy. "There is no evidence, I am aware of, that the priests working at the time, were told about that or knew about that. As a matter of fact, it was a surprise to us to see it," Johnson said.
Staff Sergeant Rocha was absent in court, but Swearingen's attorney played excerpts from a recent deposition. Rocha contradicted himself more than once about how he ended up with Father Swearingen.
"This is coming back to him in pieces. It's not all there in one piece, for instance. When he came to Fresno from Bakersfield, his memory has improved or filled out or whatever," Rocha's attorney Larry Drivon said.
The jury heard from several witnesses including Rocha's wife Laura. She testified her husband didn't tell her about any sexual abuse until three years into their marriage.
Sergeant Rocha's abusive childhood and mental state have played a big role in this trial. A military psychologist diagnosed Rocha as having a personality disorder when he was discharged from the Marines. That subject will no doubt surface again Tuesday when Father Swearingen takes the stand.
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