DA Says No Case against Priest Prosecutors Will Not Charge a Fresno Cleric Accused of Molestations

By Jennifer M. Fitzenberger
Fresno Bee (California)
November 13, 2002

Prosecutors will not criminally charge a Fresno priest accused of sexually abusing a former altar boy, officials said Tuesday.

Investigators found no evidence to corroborate allegations against the Rev. Eric Swearingen, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in northeast Fresno, said Elizabeth Mitchell, who heads the Fresno County district attorney's sexual assault unit.

"We were glad to hear it," said Bill Lucido, communications director for the Diocese of Fresno. "The father maintains his innocence."

Swearingen could not be reached for comment.

Juan Rocha, now an Army Special Forces sergeant, accused Swearingen this year of sexually abusing him in the mid-to late 1980s. Rocha, 27, has filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese, Swearingen and Bishop John Steinbock.

Mitchell said Fresno police discovered nothing to support the charges: No witnesses. No additional victims. No confession from Swearingen.

"The only way we could file something like that would be with corroboration," Mitchell said. "No corroboration has been found at this time."

Mitchell investigated for several months.

"I think that, at this point, investigation is done," absent new information, she said.

Prosecutors have a year from the reporting date to file charges, should evidence surface. Rocha contacted the diocese in April.

The Kern County District Attorney's Office also declined to file criminal charges, citing similar reasons.

A parish secretary at Holy Spirit who refused to give her name said parishioners were happy to learn of the district attorney's decision.

The criminal filing decision won't affect the civil lawsuit, said Raymond Boucher, Rocha's attorney in Los Angeles.

"We feel quite confident in the merits of the case and intend to proceed aggressively with the action," Boucher said.

Boucher said he has a "significant amount" of corroborating evidence, including people who saw his client and the priest spend time together. No one actually witnessed the alleged molestation, Boucher said.

The standard of proof in criminal cases, Boucher said, is different from civil cases: "It just may not rise to the level at which the district attorney feels comfortable in a criminal case ... to proceed."

Boucher said he knows of two additional possible victims who have not come forward.

At the time of the alleged abuse, Rocha was ages 10 to 14 and living first in Bakersfield, which is in Kern County, then in Fresno. Rocha showered and slept with Swearingen, Boucher said.

Rocha alleges the abuse began at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Bakersfield. Rocha, who ran away from home, turned for help to a church in southwest Fresno, where Swearingen had been transferred.


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