Priest Tries to Counter Molest Accusation

By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee
December 5, 2006

A church secretary testified today that if she knew a child was staying repeatedly overnight in Father Eric Swearingen's living quarters she would have reported him to his superior.

Beverly Chavez told a Fresno County Superior Court jury that she knew there were rules against having children stay overnight in the rectory at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Bakersfield.

Tuesday, Swearingen tried to counter Juan Rocha's accusations that Swearingen molested 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.

Swearingen denied molesting Rocha, but said he did allow the 12-year-old boy to stay in the two church rectories. He also testified that he asked Chavez to call Rocha's mother to see whether her son could spend the night in Swearingen's living quarters. He said the church secretary told him it was OK.

Called as a witness to support Swearingen, Chavez testified that she never called Rocha's mother. Instead, she met with Rocha's mother to ask whether the boy could stay at Chavez's home with her family. Rocha's mother agreed, Chavez testified. Chavez also said she believed the boy stayed only one night in the rectory. Swearingen testified that Rocha spent three nights. Rocha contends he spent as many as 30 nights in the priest's living quarters.

Testimony in the trial was expected to wrap up today. Closing arguments will be Wednesday morning.

Rocha, now 31 and a decorated Army sergeant first class, is seeking damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, saying he suffered emotional distress from the alleged abuse.

Swearingen, 45, pastor of Holy Spirit parish in Woodward Park, one of the largest parishes in Fresno, with 3,200 families, had repeatedly testified that he is innocent of the charges His lawyer, Carey Johnson, also contends Rocha suffers from an anti-social personality disorder that causes him to be a habitual liar. Swearingen's boss, Bishop John J. Steinbock, has supported the priest's innocence and noted that no criminal charges were ever filed.

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6434.


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