Visalia Times-Delta [Visalia CA]
August 11, 2021
By James Ward
Rev. Eric Swearingen, a Tulare County native, rose through the church’s hierarchy to lead Visalia’s Catholics despite an allegation of sexual abuse.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno on Friday posted a list of priests who it says have faced “a credible accusation of sexual abuse.”
The list included Rev. Eric Swearingen, a Tulare County native who rose through the church’s hierarchy to lead Visalia’s Catholics despite an allegation of sexual abuse. He died in 2020 after a long illness.
The list also includes 65 other names of San Joaquin Valley clergy who have been accused of sexual misconduct against minors and young adults. The other Tulare County area priests were credibly accused of sexual misconduct stretching back to before World War II. All have since died.
In a statement posted by Bishop Joseph Brennan on the Diocese of Fresno’s website, the Catholic leader said the church family “is far from perfect” and “can be dysfunctional.”
“Some members of the family — priests, deacons, and religious in positions of trust and leadership — have behaved badly,” he wrote. “That is putting it mildly. Let’s face it, acts of abuse upon the innocent and vulnerable are truly evil, plain and simple. The pain, suffering, betrayal, and loss of innocence felt by many victims lasts a lifetime.”
The Diocese of Fresno announced in 2019 it would review charges of sexual abuse by priests and other church officials dating back to 1922. But members of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said that the review took too long and information on sexual abuse charges against Catholic clergy members should have been released immediately.
In a statement, SNAP praised the Diocese of Fresno for finally releasing the names of the credibly accused but called for details of the incidents. In addition, SNAP called on the Diocese to also release the names of credibly accused abusive nuns, lay employees, and lay volunteers.
“Despite these shortcomings, the current list helps advocates, parishioners, and the public piece together a better mosaic of abuse in the Diocese of Fresno.” SNAP wrote in its statement. “This release will not only help survivors heal, but it may also help to protect today’s children.”
Swearingen, who was named head pastor over Visalia’s four Catholic congregations, George McCann School and the Bethlehem Center in 2014, was put on administrative leave in June 2019 after Brennan received more information about a civil case dating back to 2006 in which an ex-altar boy sued Swearingen for alleged sexual abuse. The victim said the alleged abuse by Swearingen occurred in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
No criminal charges were ever filed in that case, but a civil jury ruled that Swearingen did abuse the victim. The lawsuit required that the jury find the abuse happened and that the diocese did not have any prior knowledge of the incident.
Because of the split decision, the judge ruled the case a mistrial. A second trial was scheduled, but the two sides agreed to binding arbitration well before the court date — a settlement that both sides agreed to keep private.
Brennan and the church did not reveal what additional information led to Swearingen’s 2019 administrative leave decision.
The Diocese of Fresno stretches across eight counties, including Tulare, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Inyo, Madera, Merced, and Mariposa, and serves 1.2 million parishioners.
The Catholic church isn’t the only high-profile institution to be roiled by sex use scandals.
In 2019, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention promised to encourage reforms that protect children and women after a sweeping investigation published by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found hundreds of victims of sexual misconduct by church leaders or volunteers.
In 2017, Dr. Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to abusing hundreds of gymnasts despite complaints about his behavior over the years to the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics.
In 2018, more than 100 former Ohio State students alleged sexual abuse by ex-team doctor Richard Strauss from 1979 to 1997. The students allege the university ignored or covered up the abuse complai
The Boy Scouts of America has also faced a major sex scandal when a judge ordered in 2019 to release over 20,000 confidential documents revealing that over 1,000 leaders and volunteers had been banned after being accused of sexual or inappropriate conduct with boys.