Jurors to Deliberate in Priest Abuse Case

By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
December 7, 2006

Jurors will begin deliberations today to determine whether a Fresno priest sexually abused a former altar boy nearly 20 years ago.

The Fresno County Superior Court civil trial pits Father Eric Swearingen, pastor of Holy Spirit church, one of the largest parishes in Fresno, against former altar boy Juan Rocha, now 31 and a decorated Army sergeant first class.

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.

Rocha is seeking damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, contending he suffered emotional distress from the alleged abuse.

The courtroom was filled Wednesday with supporters from both sides, including Rocha's wife, Laura, and Bishop John J. Steinbock, who believes in Swearingen's innocence.

In closing arguments, the diocese's lawyer, Carey Johnson, portrayed Rocha as a liar who made false allegations against Swearingen. Rocha's lawyer, Larry Drivon, told jurors there is substantial evidence supporting Rocha.

Swearingen has testified that he allowed Rocha to stay in the two church rectories, but never molested the boy. Rocha testified that he sought help from Swearingen because he didn't like his home — his father was abusive and an alcoholic and his mother was overwhelmed with her children.

Rocha testified that Swearingen would sneak him into the rectory and let him spend 30 days in the priest's room at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Swearingen testified he let Rocha stay three days.

Swearingen also let Rocha stay three months at the St. Alphonsus rectory, but Rocha had his own room, testimony revealed.

Rocha testified that he let Swearingen molest him in both rectories because he believed it was the price he had to pay to receive gifts from Swearingen and a place to stay. Swearingen repeatedly denied the accusation.

Jurors didn't get a full picture of Rocha because Judge Donald S. Black ruled that Rocha's prior criminal record and his past indiscretions before he joined the Army in 1999 were inadmissible as evidence.

Though the diocese asked Black to reconsider his ruling, Black stuck with it, saying the evidence was too remote in Rocha's past to be admissible.

To reach a verdict, at least nine of the 12 jurors first must determine whether Swearingen committed childhood sexual abuse against Rocha. To determine damages in Rocha's favor, the jury must find that the diocese knew or had reason to know of the unlawful sexual conduct and determine whether the childhood sexual abuse "was a substantial factor in causing harm" to Rocha.

Drivon did not tell jurors how much to give Rocha. Instead, he asked the panel to give Rocha fair compensation.

The case is one of three sex-abuse lawsuits filed against the Fresno Diocese in 2002 and 2003 that have not been settled or dismissed. Two cases have been settled in the past four months — one for $875,000 and another for $650,000. Two others were dismissed last month and are being appealed.

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


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