Civil Trial Begins for Fresno Priest Accused of Molestation

Associated Press, carried in San Luis Obispo Tribune
November 30, 2006

Fresno, Calif. - Attorneys for an Army staff sergeant who claims he had been molested by a Catholic priest told jurors Tuesday that their client struggled to turn his life around after enduring sexual abuse.

Juan Rocha, 31, alleges that the Rev. Eric Swearingen of the Diocese of Fresno molested him between the ages of 12 and 15, when he was an altar boy at parishes in Fresno and Bakersfield.

Attorneys for Swearingen, who's now pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fresno, acknowledge the priest allowed Rocha to sleep in his room at church rectories. But the Kern and Fresno County district attorney's offices decided not to file criminal charges against Swearingen after investigating Rocha's allegations in 2002, church officials said.

All behavior behind closed doors was appropriate, the diocese's lawyer, Carey Johnson, told jurors in opening statements of a civil trial Tuesday.

Rocha seeks an undisclosed amount in damages from the diocese for emotional distress.

The staff sergeant grew up in a troubled home and sought refuge at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Bakersfield, where the alleged abuse first occurred, said his attorneys. When Swearingen was transferred to St. Alphonsus Church in Fresno, Rocha ran away from home and lived briefly in the priest's room there, the attorneys said.

Rocha ended up on the streets for a time, and briefly joined the Marines. He became stable when he joined the Army, and earned honors after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said his attorney Larry Drivon.

"He changed his life," Drivon said.

Defense attorneys, however, painted Rocha as a habitual liar with a personality disorder who conned his way out of the Marines.

Swearingen has devoted his life to helping those in need, including Rocha, and the priest never knew the diocese had a written policy prohibiting lay people from living in the rectory, Johnson said.

Defense attorneys said they hoped to introduce a report by a military psychiatrist who examined Rocha before he left the Marines.

According to the report, Rocha said his father physically abused him and that Rocha drank heavily and was promiscuous with women, but he never mentioned that he was abused by a priest, Johnson said, adding that the doctor concluded the young man had a personality disorder.

Rocha's sex abuse lawsuit is one of three filed against the eight-county Fresno diocese between 2002 and 2003 that has not been settled or dismissed. In August, the Diocese agreed to pay $875,000 to settle a lawsuit by a woman who alleged she was sexually abused by a priest in the early 1960s.


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