|Priest's Case to Be Settled
Abuse Trial That Ended in Toss-Up to Go into Private Binding Arbitration
By Chris Collins
May 5, 2007
A former altar boy's civil lawsuit accuses a priest who leads one of Fresno's largest churches of molesting him more than a decade ago.
But attorneys agreed Friday that the public will never know the outcome of the case.
Instead of a retrial, the Rev. Eric Swearingen and his accuser, Army Special Forces Sgt. Juan Rocha, will enter binding arbitration to settle the lawsuit.
Their lawyers arrived at the decision Friday after a 6 1/2-hour settlement conference in Fresno County Superior Court.
They also agreed that the results of the arbitration will not be made public -- an apparent concession on the part of Rocha's attorneys, Larry and David Drivon.
Larry Drivon said in December that the civil lawsuit, filed in 2002, was not about money. He offered to settle the case for $1 if Swearingen agreed to leave the priesthood. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which has maintained Swearingen's innocence, rejected the deal.
Nicholas "Butch" Wagner, a Fresno attorney who is not involved in the case, said it is unusual for attorneys to agree to keep the results of binding arbitration secret.
"I don't know why the plaintiff would agree to do that unless the defense promised something on the side," said Wagner, who specializes in civil litigation. "That's kind of strange."
Judge Donald Black issued a gag order in December prohibiting the attorneys from commenting to the media.
Rocha, who is in his early 30s, accuses Swearingen, who is in his mid-40s, of sexually molesting him during the late 1980s and early '90s.
He testified in a three-week-long December trial that when he was 12 years old and an altar boy at St. Therese parish in Shafter, Swearingen started taking him to movies, dinner and the circus. The priest offered him a break from an abusive and alcoholic father, he said.
Swearingen allowed him to stay overnight in the church rectory at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield and at St. Alphonsus in southwest Fresno, Rocha testified.
During the stays, he said, Swearingen would molest him. Rocha said he believed at the time that it was the price he had to pay for having a place to stay.
When he was 15 years old, Rocha said, he again turned to Swearingen for help and stayed with him for three months. He said he was molested then, as well.
The diocese argued that Rocha has a history of lying and noted that criminal charges were never filed against Swearingen.
Nevertheless, nine of the 12 jurors in the civil trial concluded that Swearingen molested Rocha -- the minimum number of jurors needed for a verdict in favor of a plaintiff in a civil case. But only five jurors believed the diocese deliberately ignored the abuse, prompting Judge Black to declare a mistrial.
During the trial, Swearingen took time off as pastor of Holy Spirit parish near Woodward Park, which hosts 3,200 families. He returned after the trial ended.
A retrial was scheduled for May 14, but that has now been canceled. It's unclear when the binding arbitration will take place or who will decide the case.
Like a trial, the arbitration process will involve witnesses, motions and statements from the attorneys. But instead of a jury, a sitting or retired judge will decide the outcome of the case. The proceedings are not open to the public.
Fresno civil litigation attorney Warren Paboojian said arbitration cases are much quicker and cheaper. But they also run the risk of letting just one person decide the case instead of 12, said Paboojian, who is not involved in the Swearingen case.
Paboojian said it's a "smart move" on both sides for economic reasons, though he said he generally turns down binding arbitration if he has a strong case.
"If the plaintiffs have a crappy case, then you might want to go with arbitration, but if you have a sexy case, then you want the jurors to hear it," Paboojian said.
Also, judges tend to give smaller awards to plaintiffs than juries do, he said.
Wagner said the attorneys may simply want to put an end to the case after the last trial ended in a deadlock.
"Both sides are either tired of the case or both are afraid of a jury," he said.
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