An Army Special Forces sergeant filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno alleging he was sexually abused as a child by a priest who currently leads one of Fresno’s largest and most affluent parishes.
The Rev. Eric Swearingen, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in the Woodward Park area, has taken a week’s leave and could not be reached to comment about the charges made against him.
Bishop John J. Steinbock of the Fresno Diocese described Swearingen as devastated.
Juan Rocha, 27, a former altar boy now serving with a Special Forces unit based in Colorado, is Swearingen’s accuser.
At a news conference Thursday in Fresno, Rocha said Swearingen sexually abused him in the mid- to late 1980s. Rocha was 10 to 14 and living first in Bakersfield, and then Fresno.
Rocha’s attorney, Raymond P. Boucher, said the alleged abuse “included not simply touching, but full sexual molestation. Showering. Sleeping. And those type of things.” Rocha declined to give more detail, saying he was traumatized by the alleged abuse and adding: “It takes a lot for me to even [stand] up here. …”
Rocha said he came to diocesan officials in April with his accusations. Steinbock, in a statement read by his spokesman, said he investigated Rocha’s accusations, found them “not credible” but forwarded “a full report” to authorities in Fresno and Kern counties.
Fresno police spokesman Sgt. Herman Silva said his department completed an investigation two weeks ago and submitted its report to the District Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether criminal charges will be filed.
Fresno County District Attorney Ed Hunt could not be reached to comment.
Steinbock said he contacted authorities as required by new guidelines adopted by America’s Catholic bishops in June in the wake of the national sex abuse scandal.
As the national church was rocked this year by charges of priests molesting children, the Fresno Diocese was hit with only one case: a Hanford priest accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. He was found innocent.
Rocha’s lawsuit, however, once again turns a harsh light on the Fresno Diocese, which serves 360,000 Catholics in eight counties between Bakersfield and Merced.
Swearingen, who grew up in Visalia, has been a priest in the diocese since 1987.
J. Stanley Teixeira, a Fresno attorney who took a leave of absence from the priesthood in 1989, knew Swearingen when he was a high school student in Visalia in the late 1970s. They have remained in contact through the years. Teixeira described Swearingen as “witty, funny and sincere.”
At Holy Spirit Church, religious education director Judy Bedrosian said Swearingen was friendly, gregarious and spiritual. “He’s a wonderful person. I’ve enjoyed him being my priest.”
On Thursday, Rocha and his attorney took their case directly to the Fresno Diocese, holding their news conference on the grounds of the Catholic chancery in east-central Fresno. They offered these details of the case:
Swearingen’s alleged abuse of Rocha began at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Bakersfield. Rocha ran away from home at age 13 and ended up in Fresno. Rocha turned for help to St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in southwest Fresno, where Swearingen had been transferred.
“You can call it a coincidence,” Rocha said. “It just happened. He was there.” Rocha moved in with Swearingen at St. Alphonsus, where the alleged abuse continued.
Rocha stayed for about one year, running away, he said, when Swearingen got in trouble for letting him live at the church.
Rocha said he did not tell anyone at the time about the abuse. Asked whether this case would come down to his word against Swearingen’s, Rocha replied:
“I’m not sure. It’s not for me to decide. I just want the story to be told. I think there are a lot of people who will come forward and say, ‘This happened to me, too.’ ”
Rocha said he waited more than 10 years to make his accusations because sexual abuse “is not something you can deal with right away.” He also said he gathered strength and courage from his wife and from other alleged victims who have spoken out this year.
Rocha said he has a 12-year-old daughter.
Rocha said that when he contacted the Fresno Diocese in April, officials there weren’t as responsive as he would have liked, but they did advise him to get an attorney to protect his rights. Rocha said he found his attorneys on the Internet.
Firms from Stockton, Beverly Hills and St. Paul, Minn., are handling his case, and a news release issued Thursday for the Beverly Hills firm said the three law practices have represented “hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.”
At Thursday’s news conference, a lawyer for Rocha passed out two photos of him as a child. In one, he was dressed as an altar boy.
Two of Rocha’s attorneys began the day in Bakersfield, filing a nine-count lawsuit there because the alleged abuse started in Kern County. The lawsuit identifies the person bringing the lawsuit as John Doe 1, which attorney Boucher said is Rocha. The lawsuit makes charges against Defendant Doe 1, 2 and 3. Boucher said Defendant 1 is the Fresno Diocese, Defendant 2 is Bishop Steinbock and Defendant 3 is Swearingen.
Boucher said he would soon return to Kern County court to substitute the real names. Charges in the lawsuit include negligence, childhood sexual abuse and sexual battery. The lawsuit seeks general and punitive damages but does not list a dollar amount.
Rocha and attorney Boucher also delivered a letter to the chancery office that demanded Swearingen be removed so “he does not have the opportunity to further molest children.”
Diocese spokesman William Lucido said he would take the letter to the bishop’s secretary.
Steinbock said in his statement that Swearingen has continued to serve Holy Spirit parish, where 2,000 families worship, because the diocesan investigation found Rocha’s charges “not credible.” The bishop said he would only suspend Swearingen if the police charge him with a crime or if “new credible information” appears.
Steinbock said no other complaints have ever been received against Swearingen, whom the bishop described as “a fine and dedicated priest.”