Mistrial Declared in Priest Case

By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
December 20, 2006

After eight days of deliberations, a mistrial was declared today in the civil trial of a Fresno priest accused of molesting an altar boy nearly 20 years ago. At 3 p.m. Judge Donald S. Black announced in Fresno County Superior Court that the jury was "hopelessly deadlocked," thereby ending an emotionally charged trial.

Before leaving the courtroom, the jury of seven women and five men revealed its votes — 9-3 that Father Eric Swearingen had molested former altar boy Juan Rocha, but 7-5 in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

A majority of jurors concluded that the diocese did not know or couldn't have known of Swearingen's alleged sexual misconduct toward Rocha. But nine jurors were needed to render a verdict.

Afterwards, Rocha's lawyer, David Drivon, said he and his client are ready to start a new trial. The judge scheduled a trial date of April 16, 2007. Drivon also said Rocha, now 31 and an Army sergeant first class, was vindicated by the jury's 9-3 vote that Swearingen molested him.

He called Rocha a hero for coming forward with his long-suppressed account, saying his courage might help other victims of abuse step forward to tell authorities.

Bishop John T. Steinbock also said the diocese is prepared for a new trial, saying he firmly believes in Swearingen's innocence. The bishop also said Swearingen, who took a leave of absence for the trial, will return to his parish at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Woodward Park when he feels ready.

"Let's give him a few weeks," Steinbock said.

Rocha sued the diocese after accusing 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.

He was seeking unspecified damages from diocese, contending he suffered emotional distress from the alleged abuse

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


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