Priest Molest Civil Case Ends in Mistrial
A Second Trial of Catholic Cleric in Fresno Is Expected
By Pablo Lopez
December 21, 2006
The civil trial of a Fresno priest accused of molesting an altar boy nearly 20 years ago ended in a mistrial Wednesday.
Jurors voted dozens of times on key issues, but never reached the required consensus over eight days of deliberations in Fresno County Superior Court.
In the end, the jury of seven women and five men answered two of four questions — voting 9-3 that Father Eric Swearingen had molested former altar boy Juan Rocha, but 7-5 to clear the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno of wrongdoing. A majority of nine votes was required for each question.
The mistrial means both sides will try it again, perhaps in April.
"Father Eric is innocent," Bishop John T. Steinbock said after the mistrial was announced.
Regarding the pending trial, the bishop said: "Like I told Father Eric the first time, 'We'll put it in God's hands.'"
Rocha had 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 the diocese, contending he suffered emotional distress from the alleged abuse.
During the trial, Swearingen testified that he never molested Rocha, but allowed him to stay temporarily in the two rectories.
Rocha's account was different.
He testified that Swearingen had wine on his breath when the priest allegedly invited him into his bed. In the morning, Rocha recalled his buttocks hurting.
Rocha said he allowed Swearingen to molest him because the priest gave him gifts and a place to stay — far away from his home where he lived with an alcoholic father and a mother overwhelmed with her children.
During the trial, Swearingen, wearing his clerical outfit, sat in the front row next to parents, church officials and other supporters.
Dressed in his Army uniform, Rocha was supported by his wife, Laura, and their infant son.
To reach a verdict, Judge Donald S. Black instructed the panel that at least nine jurors must agree on each question before moving to the next question. But if at least nine answered no to any of the four questions, then it would be a verdict in favor of the diocese and Rocha would not receive damages.
After the mistrial was declared, two of the 12 jurors said they voted in favor of Rocha because his claim of molestation was believable. But the two jurors said there wasn't enough evidence to conclude that the diocese knew or should have known of Swearingen's alleged sexual misconduct.
"We believe there was more than touching," said a 70-year-old male juror from Coalinga who asked to remain anonymous.
The juror said he did not know who supported Rocha or the diocese because the votes were by secret ballot. The panel consisted of four Catholics and eight Protestants.
"We declared our religion, to be fair, but our beliefs had nothing to do with deliberations," the juror said.
During deliberations, the panel picked apart the evidence, asking several times for reading testimony from Rocha, Swearingen and other key witnesses.
"We never got mad at each other. No one raised their voices," the juror said. "Everyone got to speak their piece."
After nine jurors concluded that Swearingen had molested Rocha, the entire panel got stalled on the second question — whether the diocese ignored the alleged molestation.
After more than a dozen votes, seven jurors sided with the diocese and wouldn't budge.
"The church had nothing to do with it," said a 40-year-old female juror from Clovis who asked to remain anonymous.
Because the 7-5 vote fell short of the nine-juror requirement, a mistrial was declared and jurors never got to determine Rocha's damages.
Black set a new trial date of April 16.
News of the mistrial spread quickly to Swearingen's parish at Holy Spirit Catholic Church near Woodward Park, where churchgoers had been praying in shifts since Dec. 10 for the popular priest.
"Thank you, Jesus. We've been praying for Father Eric, and we want him to come back," said Karen Harris, a parishioner at Holy Spirit.
Ben Romero, an usher at Holy Spirit, said he disagreed with jurors who believe Swearingen molested Rocha.
"I don't blame the jurors. They have to follow their hearts," Romero said.
"I still support him without reservation," Romero said. "Maybe he didn't show the best judgment at the time" but "not because he was trying to do something bad."
Neither Rocha nor Swearingen were in court Wednesday.
One of Rocha's lawyers, David Drivon, said his client, now 31 and an Army sergeant first class, feels vindicated by the jury's 9-3 vote that he was molested. Because of the vote, the diocese should remove Swearingen from the priesthood, Drivon said in earshot of the bishop.
"He's a hero," Drivon said of Rocha, because his effort might help other victims of abuse step forward to tell authorities. "These people no longer have to live in shame and silence."
The bishop said it takes more than one person's complaint to remove a priest from the diocese and noted that authorities in Fresno and Kern counties investigated Rocha's allegations, but never filed criminal charges against Swearingen.
The priest also passed a lie detector test, the bishop said.
"Father Eric is a great priest. Parishioners love him," Stein-bock said.
During the trial, Rocha testified that after he got kicked out of the rectories, he lived on the streets, drank heavily and had sex with about 300 women.
He joined the Marines in 1993 but received an administrative discharge a few months later. A military psychiatrist concluded Rocha had the traits of an anti-social personality disorder and was a risk to himself and to other Marines.
Carey Johnson, the diocese's lawyer, said Rocha's anti-social personality disorder causes him to lie, but the diocese's expert could not fully explain the diagnosis because the judge ruled that Rocha's past indiscretions were inadmissible as evidence.
For example, Rocha's past includes fathering a child but never admitting to being the father until the child was 11 years old, Johnson said.
Though a court ordered Rocha to perform a DNA test, he sent a relative in his place. The scam was uncovered, Johnson said.
Rocha also tried in the late 1990s to get a co-worker to give him his Social Security number so Rocha could rejoin the military, Johnson said.
In the next trial, Johnson said, he will fight hard to get this evidence in front of a jury.
Johnson and the bishop also criticized Rocha's lawyers, Larry and David Drivon, for trying to sway the jury during deliberations with their offer to settle the case for $1 if Swearingen left the priesthood. The diocese immediately rejected the offer.
Steinbock said the Drivons didn't mention Rocha's other offer to settle the case for $1 million. "He said it wasn't about money," Steinbock said. "Yes, it's about money."
David Drivon declined to respond to Steinbock's assertion.
Swearingen, who took a leave of absence for the trial, will return to his parish when he feels ready, Steinbock said.
Bee staff writer Vanessa Colón contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559)441-6434.
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