Deliberations in Case against Priest Drag on
Jurors Enter Their Seventh Day of Talks, Want 'Knowledge of Circumstances' Defined

By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee [Fresno Bee]
December 19, 2006

A jury will continue deliberations today in the Fresno County Superior Court civil trial of a Fresno priest accused of molesting an altar boy nearly 20 years ago.

So far, jurors have deliberated 27 1/2 hours over six days in the trial that pits Father Eric Swearingen, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Woodward Park, against former altar boy Juan Rocha.

Rocha, now 31 and an Army sergeant first class, 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.

During the trial, Swearingen testified that he never molested Rocha, but allowed the former altar boy to stay temporarily in the two rectories.

Monday, the jury of seven women and five men asked Judge Donald S. Black for a definition of "knowledge of circumstances," a term found in the jury instructions.

In court, the judge and lawyers agreed that "knowledge of circumstances" pertained to the second question on the verdict form — whether the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno knew or should have known of the alleged sexual misconduct.

If the jurors are following the judge's instructions, before taking up the second question at least nine of the 12 would have to say yes to the first question: "Did Father Swearingen commit childhood sexual abuse of Juan Rocha?"

Black told jurors that "knowledge of circumstances" essentially means "knowledge of facts" — that if the diocese had made a "reasonable inquiry," would church officials suspect sexual misconduct?

Jurors also wanted to know whether childhood sexual abuse, unlawful sexual conduct and sexual abuse, terms used in the verdict form, were synonyms. After consulting with the lawyers, the judge told the panel yes.

To reach a verdict, the jury must answer as many as four questions, including 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.

The panel began deliberations in Fresno County Superior Court on Dec. 7 and deliberated 15 hours over three days before a male juror was dismissed after he overheard shoppers discussing the plaintiff's offer to settle the case for $1.

The juror was replaced because he said the plaintiff's settlement demand to have Swearingen leave the priesthood would influence his judgment.

Once the juror was replaced Wednesday with a male alternate, the entire panel had to start over on its deliberations. So far, the new panel has deliberated about 12 1/2 hours over three days.

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6434.


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