Asking for Trouble?
Fresno Bishop Names Priest Accused of Sexual Misconduct As High School Rector

California Catholic Daily
December 27, 2007

A priest of the Diocese of Fresno found by a superior court jury to have more likely than not sexually molested a young man more than 20 years ago has been named rector of a diocesan Catholic high school.

In December 2006, a superior court jury empanelled in a civil lawsuit against the Fresno diocese voted 9-3 that Fr. Eric Swearingen had molested former altar boy Juan Rocha when Rocha was between 12 and 15 years old.

The December 2007 edition of Central California Catholic Life, Fresno's diocesan newspaper, reports that Fr. Swearingen has now been named by Bishop John Steinbock as rector of San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, effective Jan. 1.

Rocha, now a sergeant in Army Special Forces, accused Swearingen of molesting him in the mid-1980s at two different parishes -- St. Alphonsus in Fresno and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield. Rocha claims that memories of the alleged abuse did not surface until 2002, when he filed a criminal complaint against the priest. But the Fresno County district attorney's office dismissed the criminal case for lack of evidence. Rocha then filed a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages against the Fresno diocese.

In December 2006, after eight days of deliberation, the jury told Superior Court Judge Donald Black that it was hopelessly deadlocked on one element of the case: whether the Diocese of Fresno knew or should have known about the alleged abuse. While the jury's 9-3 vote finding that Rocha's allegations of abuse were true was legally sufficient to sustain the charge against Swearingen, it repeatedly deadlocked on the second question -- never reaching the minimum of 9 votes needed to find the allegations against the diocese true or false. As a result, Judge Black declared a mistrial.

During the trial, Rocha testified that Swearingen allowed him to sleep overnight at the rectory and there abused him. The diocese has not denied that Rocha spent nights at the rectory. Swearingen, said diocesan lawyer Carey Johnson, knew nothing of a 1929 diocesan policy forbidding laymen from staying in rectories. Swearingen also took the stand in his own defense, denying that he ever molested Rocha, testifying that he was instead trying to lend a helping hand to a troubled teenager.

While the trial was in progress, Rocha offered to settle the lawsuit with the diocese for $1 if it agreed to defrock Swearingen, but Bishop Steinbock, who insisted on Swearingen's innocence, refused. An internal investigation by the Diocese of Fresno reportedly concluded that the charges against Swearingen were "not credible."

A retrial of the case had been set for May 14. But on May 4, lawyers from both sides agreed to arbitration a process that substitutes a retired judge for the jury. Unlike a jury trial, arbitration proceedings are not open to the public.

Swearingen took a leave of absence as pastor of Holy Spirit parish in Fresno's upscale Woodward Park neighborhood during the trial, but returned after it ended. According to the parish web site, he remains pastor.


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