New Pastor for Visalia's Catholics
By Kyle Harvey
July 10, 2014
|Rev. Eric Swearingen, pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia, greet parishioners after Mass at St. Mary's on June 28, 2014. He is the new pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia.|
The Catholic Church of Visalia on Sunday will welcome the Rev. Eric Swearingen as its new pastor, a man who has strong support from many parishioners and has what some say is a troubled past.
As pastor, Swearingen will assume the leadership role overseeing Visalia's four Catholic parishes, George McCann School and the Bethlehem Center. For Swearingen, the transfer from Fresno to Visalia is a homecoming. He grew up in Visalia, attending George McCann and graduating from Redwood High School in 1979.
In a brief telephone interview with the Times-Delta Thursday, Swearingen said he has fond memories of stopping for a soda at Glick's Meat Market while biking home from George McCann.
"I left here in 1979," he said. "A lot's changed since then."
After graduating from high school, Swearingen studied theology at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo and did graduate work at Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus.
Swearingen's first assignment as a priest was in Bakersfield. He later served at parishes in Fresno and Lemoore. He was also a chaplain in the Air National Guard in Fresno — a position which sent him on a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia in 2000.
|Rev. Eric Swearingen prepares to bless an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help before Mass June 28, 2014 at St. Mary's Catholic Church. He is the new pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia. (Photo: Teresa Douglass )|
As the leader in Visalia, Swearingen said he's charged with helping to develop the St. Charles Borromeo property on Caldwell Avenue and Akers Street. Planning for a new church building is in the works there, he said.
It was while Swearingen was conducting ministry in Fresno in 2006 that he was accused of molesting a teenage altar boy many years earlier.
No criminal charges were ever filed by either the Fresno or Kern County district attorneys but the alleged victim — who came forward nearly two decades after the alleged abuse occurred — brought a civil suit in Fresno against the pastor and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
Juan Rocha said that Swearingen allowed him to stay temporarily in two rectories, one in Fresno and one in Bakersfield. Swearingen reportedly gave him refuge from a troubled home life that included an alcoholic father — a story Swearingen verified, according to media reports at the time.
But the two testimonies diverged after that, with Rocha saying he was abused and Swearingen denying it.
The diocese, presided over at the time by the late Bishop John T. Steinbock, adamantly defended Swearingen. Defense attorneys sought to discredit Rocha's testimony by showing him to be dishonest, but the judge threw out the evidence.
Rocha, who Fresno media reported at the time was an Army sergeant first class, received an administrative discharge from the Marines after a military psychologist ruled he possessed an anti-social disorder that made him a risk to himself and others.
Rocky Pipkin, a Visalia-based private investigator who the Swearingen family hired to help defend Swearingen, said Thursday he believes Rocha inflated his military credentials. The uniform he wore during the trial had decorations from other eras, he said.
The investigation into Rocha's past, Pipkin said, revealed deep flaws in character that should cast major doubts on the veracity of his allegations.
Fresno media reports of the trial in Fresno included the diocese's attorney telling the court that Rocha had a history of deception that included attempts to use someone else's DNA in a court ordered test and someone else's Social Security number in an attempt to rejoin the armed forces.
Steinbock told Fresno media outlets that Rocha's case was simply an attempt to extort money from the church.
In a result that drew the ire of advocacy groups such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the jury ruled that Swearingen did likely abuse Rocha but that the diocese did not have any prior knowledge of the incident. The lawsuit required that the jury find both claims to be true.
Because of the split decision, the judge ruled it a mistrial. A second trial was scheduled, but the two sides agreed to binding arbitration well before the court date — arbitration the two sides agreed to keep private.
Regardless of the arbitration behind closed doors, Rocha's attorneys said their client was vindicated by the ruling that he was abused. The jury's initial ruling, they said, should have led to church discipline against Swearingen. None was taken.
Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota-based attorney who the New York Times reported has made a career representing hundreds of alleged victims of crimes committed by priests, was one of the lawyers in Rocha's camp.
"I'm disturbed that [Steinbock's] successors have the same view and continue to give this guy a safe harbor," Anderson said Wednesday.
David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, had similar sentiments.
"It's really disingenuous for the church to say, 'Shucks, the jury was hung,' " he said.
Swearingen's family says attorneys representing Rocha used intimidation and threatened the family during the trial. They described the court as having a "mob mentality."
Parishioners attending mass at St. Mary's on Wednesday and Thursday expressed confidence in church leadership, who they said they trust to make the right decisions about their pastor. Some had knowledge of the 2006 incident and some did not.
Marco Rinaldi, of Cutler, was one of Swearingen's supporters.
"I'm 100 percent confident," he said. "Not only do I trust church leadership, but I feel the proper process was done and that should be behind him. We're very glad to have him here."
Rinaldi had praise for the pastor's homilies and his connection with the church body.
"We need someone [like Swearingen] who you can talk to and feel like you really have his ear," he said.
In Fresno, parishioners at Holy Spirit Church were sad to see him leave for Visalia. A Facebook post announcing his departure on the church's Facebook page drew dozens of well wishes.
|Rev. Eric Swearingen, pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia, gives a homily during the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help June 28, 2014, at St. Mary's Catholic Church. He is the new pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia. (Photo: Teresa Douglass )|
"For members of our family alone, you baptized, gave first communion, confirmed, conducted marriages and funerals, or in other words, you did it all!" Joyce Heisdorf posted to the announcement. "You will be greatly missed Padre. Thanks for the laughs! Our loss is Visalia's gain. Congratulations on your new mission!"
Many commenters praised Swearingen's homilies and the special attention he paid to families, those celebrating and those grieving.
Henry Medina, who served for the past three months as a deacon and director of administration for the church in Visalia, had high praise for Swearingen.
"He's a great shepherd of our church," he said. "He's become a dear friend and someone I admire as a spiritual leader."
From the bishop
The Times-Delta/Advance Register reached out to the diocese in Fresno for comment on Swearingen's past and future. We received the following written statement from Bishop Armando X. Ochoa:
"The vigilance of parents makes an important contribution to the overall efforts of creating safe environments for our parish and school families. When the behavior of any member of the clergy, diocesan employee or volunteer is brought into question, it is of the upmost importance that the concerns are addressed in an appropriate manner out of the concern for all. When allegations are unsubstantiated, it is also very important to ensure that every effort is made to restore the good name of the accused, especially if the issue gained public attention.
"In regards to concerns that were recently expressed to the Visalia Times Delta reporter covering the Installation of Rev. Eric Swearingen as the Pastor of the Catholic Churches of Visalia, The Diocese of Fresno would like to take this opportunity to verify that Fr. Swearingen is a priest in good standing, respected for his pastoral care and leadership among the parish communities he has served. I have the upmost confidence that Fr. Swearingen will continue exemplary pastoral care to the faith communities of the Catholic Churches of Visalia."
How to attend
What: Bishop Armando X. Ochoa is installing Father Eric Swearingen as the new pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia.
When: 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass
Where: St. Mary's Church, 608 N. Church St., Visalia.