Letter from Diocese of Fresno Bishop

Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
December 21, 2006

Diocese of Fresno Pastoral Center 1550 North Freso Stret Fresno, California 93703-3788

My dear people of God at Holy Spirit,

I think it is important for you to have this information to correct the false and misleading statements that have been given to the media. What I write here hopefully will be reported by the media.

I first want to thank you again for your support and prayers for Fr. Eric Swearingen. I have never doubted his innocence. He has been a faithful priest for almost 20 years. He has never had any other allegation or even complaints against him in all those years. Two police departments, Fresno and Bakersfield, jointly investigated his case and their report was given to the Fresno District Attorney who declined to prosecute. He passed with flying colors a lie detector test administered by an expert, who had worked as an expert in this field for the FBI. The Diocesan Review Board, set up by the direction of the Charter of the Bishops for the Protection of Children, after examining all the evidence we gathered after the allegation, advised me that there was not sufficient reason to believe the allegation was credible and it was not necessary to remove Fr. Eric from ministry.

With the mistrial being declared, a new trial is schedule for April 16. A great deal of the evidence we have supporting the innocence of Fr. Eric is not necessarily admissible in a civil trial. We will make a motion for the judge to allow some of the evidence that was not allowed in the first trial, which we believe is very important for our case, and which we feel will lead the jury to exonerate Fr. Swearingen.

The statement made by the attorney for the plaintiff during the trial, so pervasive in the media, that he asked to settle for $1.00 if Fr. Swearingen was taken out of ministry, "to show that the case has nothing to do with money," was a very misleading statement. This statement which some of the jurors acknowledged knowing, very likely could have swayed the jury, even subconsciously, in their interpretation of the evidence regarding Fr. Swearingen. I did not feel I could ethically respond before the trial ended. I did not respond when I spoke at the Catholic Professional Breakfast Club early in the morning on December 8, the morning that the offer was the headline story in the Fresno Bee, even before the judge imposed the gag order, at our request. I now can speak. The offer was an "either/or" offer: either accept the $1.00 offer and take Fr. Eric out of ministry, and within an hour the plaintiff's attorney called and asked if we did not accept that offer, pay one million dollars and they would then allow a Church canonical trial to determine his innocence or guilt. It would seem from this offer that they wanted 1 million dollars whether he was innocent or guilty. But, this part of the offer could not make it back to the jury.

I must respond to the misleading statements that are circulating in the media that the jury found Fr. Swearingen guilty. First of all, the jury did not find Fr. Swearingen "guilty." This was a civil trial and not a criminal trial. Only in a criminal trial is guilt determined, which must be established beyond a reasonable doubt, and to a moral certainty. A civil trial does not require moral certainty. Their vote had no moral certainty and was only an intermediate vote. The jury could have changed this vote any time during the remaining deliberations, until they came to a verdict. So the vote, without a verdict, had no legal effect. I emphasize this, as the plaintiff's attorney himself on TV wrongly stated that the jury found Fr. Swearingen guilty, which it did not, and that he must be removed from ministry because of the Charter of the Bishops of the United States. Canonically and legally both of these statements are not true.

The Charter of the Bishops of the United States, regarding the Protection of Children, to which I am committed, states specifically that a priest is to be taken out of ministry only if the priest admits to having sexually abused a minor, or if it is established after an appropriate process in accord with Canon Law. A priest would have to be taken out of ministry temporarily if there was sufficient evidence to suspect that child abuse took place, and then permanently out of ministry through a canonical process if it is proven that this abuse took place.

A criminal trial that found a priest guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" would give sufficient evidence to remove canonically a priest permanently from ministry, who would already be out of ministry temporarily, because there would have been sufficient evidence that the abuse may have occurred.

A civil trial does not need to find a priest responsible for molestation beyond a reasonable doubt. A civil trial may not even have sufficient evidence to prove with moral certitude, that sexual abuse took place. The very fact that the jury was split in their vote on Fr. Eric shows that there was doubt and division amongst the jurors on this issue.

If there was sufficient evidence that sexual abuse took place, I would have already taken Fr. Eric out of ministry, reported this to the Doctrine of the Faith, and initiated a canonical trial to determine his innocence or guilt. Looking at all the evidence, much of which the jury was not able to review; there is NOT sufficient evidence to suspect that sexual abuse took place.

Many innocent priests have been wrongly accused and treated unjustly through the last five years. I will not punish a priest, for whom there is not sufficient evidence, looking at all the evidence, that he abused a minor. In fact, I cannot morally do this. There is no reason, whatsoever, legally, canonically, or morally, to keep me from returning Fr. Eric to ministry. The Catholic Church is doing a great deal now to protect children under its care, and to reach out to victims of sexual abuse of priests. But doing this cannot be done in such a manner as to punish innocent priests.

Praise God he has the full confidence of you his parishioners who have come to know and respect him as a faithful, loving, and caring priest. Please keep in your prayers, me as Bishop, Fr. Eric, and also the young man making this allegation. Let us put this all into the hands of God with faith in His presence and love in our lives.

In Christ, Our Lord,

Most Revered John T. Steinbock Bishop, Diocese of Fresno


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