Prayers Seek Priest's Acquittal
Fresno Parishioners Show Support in Civil Molest Trial

By Vanessa Colón
Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
December 18, 2006

Groups of parishioners have been praying around the clock for a court verdict that would exonerate a pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fresno's Woodward Park.

Churchgoers began praying in shifts Dec. 10 in support of Father Eric Swearingen, who is accused in a Fresno County Superior Court civil trial of molesting an altar boy 20 years ago. Swearingen has denied the allegation.

On Sunday, following a Life Teen Mass tailored for youths, about a dozen teens gathered outside the church to show their faith in Swearingen. They held signs with drawn hearts reading, "We [love] you Father Eric."

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous. There's no way in a million years this could have ever happened," said 16-year-old Brianne Torres of Fresno.

The case involves Juan Rocha, now 31 and an Army sergeant first class, who accuses Swearingen of molesting him when Rocha was between 12 and 15 years old. Rocha alleges it occurred at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield and at St. Alphonsus parish in southwest Fresno.

Swearingen testified that he never molested Rocha, but allowed him to stay temporarily in two rectories.

Parishioners said they believe in Swearingen and want him to return to the church, where he is known for his motivational sermons. Some have attended his trial to support him.

They haven't seen him conduct Mass for weeks. Sunday's Mass was conducted by the Rev. Monsignor James Logan, Holy Spirit's pastor emeritus.

The jury in Swearingen's civil trial began deliberating Dec. 7. Last week, a juror was dismissed after he said he overheard shoppers discussing Rocha's offer to settle the case for $1 — if Swearingen quit the priesthood. Deliberations resumed when an alternate replaced the juror.

Some parishioners called the $1 settlement offer a publicity stunt.

"This is the biggest sham. This guy is innocent," said Jerrie Castro, a 65-year-old parishioner, echoing the youths' views as she left the church Sunday. "Why would anyone offer $1 and ask a civil court to remove a priest when they can't do that and the attorneys know this?"

As jury deliberations continue, parishioners said they would continue to pray for the priest and hope that he returns soon.

"He is our father. We love him very much. We don't know what we will do without him," said 17-year-old Billie Valdez of Fresno.

The reporter can be reachedat or (559) 441-6313.


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