Diocese Rejects $1 Offer in Sex Abuse Case
Ex-Altar Boy Wants Fresno Pastor's Resignation
By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
December 8, 2006
A former altar boy who has accused Father Eric Swearingen of sexual abuse offered to settled the civil case Thursday for $1 — provided Swearingen leaves the priesthood.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno immediately rejected the offer, made on the first day of jury deliberations in Fresno County Superior Court. Jurors will resume deliberations Monday.
The trial pits Swearingen, pastor of Holy Spirit church, one of the largest parishes in Fresno, against former altar boy Juan Rocha, now 31 and a decorated Army sergeant first class.
Rocha has accused Swearingen of molesting him at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield and at St. Alphonsus parish in southwest Fresno when Rocha was between 12 and 15 years old. He is seeking unspecified damages from the diocese, contending he suffered emotional distress from the alleged abuse.
While jurors deliberated Thursday, Rocha's lawyer, Larry Drivon, said the settlement offer backed up his claim that "this case was never about money."
The diocese lawyer, Carey Johnson, said it was rejected because Bishop John J. Steinbock firmly believes in Swearingen's innocence.
Steinbock, head of the Fresno diocese, has said authorities in Fresno and Kern counties investigated Rocha's allegations and no criminal charges were ever filed against Swearingen.
"You have to put your Christian principles where your mouth is," Johnson said.
"If you believe strongly in a man's innocence, like the bishop does, then you don't send him down the river to save the diocese money."
During the trial, Rocha testified that he sought help from Swearingen because Rocha didn't like his home — his alcoholic father was abusive and his mother was overwhelmed with her children.
Swearingen testified that he allowed Rocha to live temporarily in the two church rectories, but denied molesting him.
Steinbock knows the evidence. He sat with other Swearingen supporters in Judge Donald Black's courtroom through three hours of closing arguments. Rocha also had supporters in the courtroom.
Rocha had to convince the jury that a preponderance of evidence showed the abuse happened, which is far below the standard in a criminal case of proving beyond a reasonable doubt.
To reach a verdict, the jury of seven women and five men must answer as many as four questions.
At least nine of the 12 jurors must first determine whether Swearingen committed childhood sexual abuse against Rocha.
Then, to determine damages in Rocha's favor, the jury must find that the diocese knew or had reason to know of the sexual misconduct, and then determine whether the abuse "was a substantial factor in causing harm" to Rocha.
Before noon Thursday, jurors sent the judge a question regarding the definition of "giving notice."
Drivon said the request may indicate the jury has decided that Swearingen did commit sexual abuse and has now moved on to the question of whether the diocese was aware of it.
Johnson, however, said it would be speculation to know what jurors are thinking.
In late afternoon, jurors requested portions of the trial testimony read back to them, including the testimony about when Rocha began leaving his home in Shafter and how he returned home after spending the night in the rectory.
Another question concerned whether Swearingen gave rebuttal testimony to Rocha's claim that the priest gave Rocha wine to drink at Our Lady of Guadalupe.
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 other cases have been settled in the last four months — one for $875,000 and another for $650,000. Two others were dismissed last month and are being appealed.
Drivon said Rocha's settlement offer was fair, considering that the nation's Roman Catholic bishops asserted in 2002 that they would remove from the ministry any priest or deacon who ever used a minor for sexual gratification.
"They adopted a no-tolerance policy," Drivon said, noting that if jurors have said yes to question No. 1 — Did Swearingen commit childhood sexual abuse on Rocha? — then there's enough evidence to remove Swearingen from the priesthood.
Johnson, however, insisted that Swearingen is innocent.
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6434.
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