Juror Deliberation Stalled in Trial of Fresno Priest

By Liz Harrison
ABC 30 [Fresno CA]
December 18, 2006

Action News has learned a majority of jurors in a sexual abuse trial of a Fresno priest believe he is guilty. However, because it's a civil trial, the priest and the Catholic Diocese of Fresno can still win the case.

Just half an hour into deliberations Monday morning the jury in the sexual abuse case told the judge their progress toward a verdict had stalled. The jury has been deliberating since Thursday, December 7 but had to start over last week when one of the jurors was dismissed.

It's a case of alleged sexual abuse that allegedly took place over 20 years ago. Juan Rocha was an altar boy, Father Eric Swearingen was his priest.

Rocha, who is currently a sergeant in the U.S. Army, claims Father Swearingen molested him while he stayed overnight at two different church rectories, one in Bakersfield and one in Fresno.

The jury is being asked to answer four different questions. All four must be answered for a verdict in Rocha's favor.

The first question is did Father Swearingen commit sexual abuse. If the jury answers yes, they go on to question two. On Monday the jury acknowledged it had answered yes to question one and has moved onto the second question. Which is "did the Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno know the abuse was taking place.

ABC30 Legal Analyst Tony Capozzi says the case could soon be over if the jury stops at question two.

"He may have committed sexual abuse, but the lawsuit isn't just against the priest. It's against the diocese," Capozzi said. "What the plaintiffs have to show is that the diocese knew that this sexual abuse was going on. And if they can't prove that, the case if over."

Unlike a criminal trial, only nine jurors have to agree in a civil case, but the jury in this case told the judge they can't even get nine jurors to agree whether the diocese knew of any abuse.

Capozzi says a judge can try to encourage jurors to compromise.

The jurors have apparently taken at least five votes on question number two. Twice the vote was eight to four. Nine votes are needed to move onto the next question. Which asks did the sexual abuse cause substantial harm to Juan Rocha. Jurors will be back Tuesday morning for more deliberations.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.