Accused Priest Gets Ovation
Parishioners at Fresno Church Welcome Him Back after Civil Sex Abuse Trial
By Vanessa Colón
January 15, 2007
A popular Fresno priest accused in a civil lawsuit of molesting an altar boy nearly two decades ago was welcomed back by his Fresno parish on Sunday.
Parishioners at Holy Spirit Catholic Church gave the Rev. Eric Swearingen a standing ovation in the packed church in north Fresno. They clapped loudly. Someone shouted: "We love you!"
Swearingen, wearing a green robe, bowed his head as a gesture of thanks. He hadn't celebrated Sunday Mass since his civil trial began. His trial ended in a mistrial Dec. 20.
"It's good to be home. I want to thank all of you for the prayers. ... It's all been so influential. ... I appreciate it so much," Swearingen said to the churchgoers before Mass.
Churchgoers said they would continue to support him if Swearingen has a new trial later this year.
Nine jurors in the civil trial concluded that Swearingen had molested former altar boy Juan Rocha. But jurors, split 7 to 5, could not agree on whether the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno knew that any molestation had occurred, leading the judge to declare a mistrial. To reach a verdict, the jurors needed nine votes on each question they were asked to decide.
A new trial date was set for April 16.
Rocha 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.
Swearingen, however, testified that he never molested Rocha, but said he allowed him to stay temporarily in the two rectories.
Bishop John T. Steinbock supported Swearingen throughout the trial, noting that no criminal charges were ever filed against the priest.
Rocha sought unspecified damages. But some churchgoers said Rocha accused Swearingen and filed the civil suit all in the pursuit of money.
When approached on Sunday, Swearingen would only say, "Glad to be here."
Many parishioners at Holy Spirit Church near Woodward Park shook hands with Swearingen when the Mass ended.
"It's terrible what this person is doing to him. Like I said, he's a great man. It's hard but we also have to pray for the accuser," said 52-year-old Jane Gordon of Fresno.
Gordon said she would keep supporting Swearingen if he has a new trial.
Some parishioners prefer his homilies to those of other priests.
"It's just how he interprets the Bible. He relates it to everyday," said 39-year-old Diana Sorondo of Clovis.
Other churchgoers describe the popular priest as easy to approach and caring.
"I'm very, very excited. We've been waiting for him for a while," said 17-year-old Billie Valdez of Fresno.
The reporter can be reached at vcolón@fresnobee.com or(559) 441-6313.
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