Jury Appears Not to Favor Priest
Vote Sequence May Hold Clue to Ruling in Sex-Abuse Case
By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
December 20, 2006
A civil jury appears to have concluded that a Fresno priest molested a former altar boy nearly 20 years ago, but the jurors are stalled on whether the Roman Catholic Diocese knew or should have known of the alleged sexual abuse.
The jury announced it has voted 9-3 on the first question it must weigh — whether Father Eric Swearingen, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church, sexually abused former altar boy Juan Rocha. Jurors did not indicate which way they voted.
However, jurors were reminded Tuesday that they must answer the four questions before them in sequence — and must vote yes on one question before proceeding to the next question, or the trial is over.
Rocha, now 31 and an Army sergeant first class, has accused Swearingen of molesting him at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish 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. Deliberations have spanned seven days and will continue today.
Judge Donald S. Black has instructed the panel at least nine jurors must agree on the first question before moving to the next question. But if at least nine answer no to any of the four questions, then it would be a verdict in favor of the diocese and Rocha would not receive damages.
Black said Tuesday that a jury majority has answered the first question of whether Swearingen committed childhood sexual abuse on Rocha.
The judge called the jury into the courtroom and asked the foreman to recite the votes for the next question — whether the diocese knew or should have known about the alleged sexual molestation.
The foreman said there have been at least a half-dozen votes, but the majority of votes have been a 7-5 split. The judge asked the foreman not to reveal which way the jury was leaning.
To facilitate deliberations, jurors asked Black to allow them to skip the second question and go to the next question — was the alleged molestation "a substantial factor" in causing harm to Rocha?
Black, however, told the jury that it must answer the questions in sequence and ordered jurors to continue deliberations on the second question.
The final question deals with Rocha's damages.
Fresno lawyer Mick Maderosian, who is not associated with the case, said that once jurors declare they "are hopelessly deadlocked," and fall short of the nine-juror requirement, then Black can declare a mistrial.
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