Fresno Diocese Sued in Alleged Abuse in 1960s

By Michael Baker
Fresno Bee (California)
December 16, 2003

A Southern California man is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, saying he was sexually abused more than 35 years ago by a prestigious priest who is now dead.

John Gregory Pech, 51, says he was molested by Monsignor Joseph Pacheco during the 1960s while the priest taught at parishes in Tulare and Merced.

Pacheco, a former dean of the Merced-Mariposa area of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, died from cancer at the age of 60 on May 17, 1992.

The diocese has not been served and could not comment on the lawsuit, said William Lucido, communications director for the diocese.

Pacheco has never been the subject of past allegations, Lucido added.

Friends of Pacheco questioned the allegations.

"He was a great man," said Monsignor John Harguindeguy, who co-founded a teen ministry in Merced with Pacheco.

"I'm just kind of shocked," said Harguindeguy, pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in northwest Fresno. "It's the last thing I would have thought of. Of course, it's false."

The lawsuit, filed in Fresno County Superior Court, joins a host of similar suits filed this month in California as attorneys and alleged molestation victims rush to beat an end-of-year filing deadline for cases involving decades-old abuse.

Pech says the diocese covered up Pacheco's molestation and therefore is liable for his actions.

"They had information that stuff was going on," said Pech's Irvine-based attorney, Katherine K. Freberg. "Boys were spending the night in parishes and going on overnight trips. These are red flags."

Pech couldn't be reached to comment, but the lawsuit claims he was molested on several occasions from 1965 to 1968.

Pech, who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and is a former altar boy, would stay nights at Pacheco's rectory room in Tulare and then Merced, according to the lawsuit. Pech also spent weekends with the priest at a mountain camp just east of Tulare, the suit says.

Pech, who was a student of Pacheco's in Tulare, says in the lawsuit that on several occasions he received gifts, money and trips from Pacheco.

Pacheco was ordained in 1957 and had a long history in the Fresno diocese.

He was assigned in 1961 to St. Rita's Catholic Church in Tulare. While there, Pacheco was vice chairman of the Tulare Interracial Advisory Council, a youth organization. He received an honorary lifetime membership award from the Tulare Parent-Teacher Association Council for his leadership in the Columbian Squires, a group of boys ages 14 to 18.

In 1967, Pacheco became pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Merced. In 1981, Pacheco became the dean of the Merced-Mariposa area of the Fresno Diocese. He finished his career at Our Lady of Miracles Church in Gustine.

Listed as defendants in the lawsuit are the Fresno Diocese, the Tulare and Merced churches, and the Catholic Diocese of Monterey.

The Monterey and Fresno areas were part of the same diocese until they split in 1967. The Fresno Diocese serves 360,000 Catholics in eight counties between Bakersfield and Merced.

Before this year, California law required that lawsuits against churches and other organizations that knowingly employed molesters be filed by the time the plaintiff was 26 or within three years of discovering problems linked to childhood abuse.

Beginning in January, that statute of limitations was lifted for one year.

Freberg said the result has been several lawsuits filed by people alleging decades-old molestation. Freberg said she represents 134 people who have filed lawsuits against Catholic churches.

"I represent victims from Santa Rosa to San Diego," she added.

Despite the slew of lawsuits, Pech's is the first one this year filed against the Fresno Diocese, Lucido said.

The only pending lawsuit against the diocese was filed by Juan Rocha, an Army Special Forces sergeant, who accused the Rev. Eric Swearingen of sexually abusing him in the mid- to late 1980s, Lucido said. The lawsuit was filed in October 2002 in Kern County.


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