Fresno Priest Testifies He Never Molested Altar Boy

By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee
December 6, 2006

Providing the chief testimony on behalf of a Fresno priest accused of molesting a former altar boy, a church secretary said Tuesday she can only recall one night when the boy stayed in the rectory.

Plaintiff Juan Rocha, now 31 and a decorated Army sergeant first class, contends that he spent 30 days over a period of a year and a half sharing a room with Father Eric Swearingen nearly two decades ago.

In a civil trial that began last week, Rocha has accused Swearingen of molesting him at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield and at St. Alphonsus parish in southwest Fresno when Rocha was between 12 and 15 years old.

He said he allowed Swearingen to molest him because he felt "it was the price I had to pay" to receive gifts from Swearingen and a place to stay.

Rocha is seeking damages from the diocese, contending he suffered emotional distress from the alleged abuse.

Swearingen, now pastor of Holy Spirit parish in an affluent north Fresno neighborhood, on Tuesday repeated assertions he made when he took the stand Monday that he never molested the boy.

Last week a psychiatrist hired by the diocese also testified that Rocha suffers from a personality disorder that makes him an habitual liar.

This testimony was countered by another expert hired by the plaintiffs, however. This expert said Rocha showed signs of someone who as a child had been abused by a priest.

As testimony wrapped up Tuesday, Swearingen rebutted Rocha's account that the boy often stayed overnight in the rectory at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to avoid troubles at home. Swearingen said Rocha spent three nights in his living quarters.

Church secretary Beverly Chavez went further, testifying that she believed Rocha only spent a single night in Swearingen's room.

"I thought he only spent one time in the father's room," she testified.

Swearingen also on Tuesday denied Rocha's testimony that he molested the boy in the priest's bed and in the shower.

Swearingen testified that Rocha was never in his bed.

And the priest said he saw Rocha in the shower only once, to inspect a bruise the boy had suffered.

Under cross-examination Tuesday, Swearingen acknowledged that one of his duties as a priest was to help others — but that he never spoke with Rocha's parents to find a solution to the troubles that drove the boy from their house.

Swearingen also admitted that he never called county or Catholic social workers who could have helped Rocha.

Lawyers for both sides are scheduled to give their closing arguments today, clearing the way for a jury of seven women and five men to begin deliberations.

Since 2002, when Rocha filed his lawsuit, no other person has come forward with similar accusations against Swearingen, who has the support of his boss, Bishop John J. Steinbock. The bishop has publicly vouched for the priest and has pointed out that no criminal charges ever were filed.

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