The national church abuse scandal reached Kern County Thursday with the filing of a lawsuit alleging sexual molestation by a former local priest.
The lawsuit by 27-year-old Juan Rocha accuses an unnamed Catholic priest of sexually abusing him in and around Bakersfield from about 1985 to 1989. It alleges the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno let the abuse continue.
Rocha named the priest while addressing local media, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno identified him in a statement as Father Eric Swearingen.
Swearingen had no comment and referred calls to the diocese, according to his secretary.
Diocese officials said they investigated a complaint made by Rocha against Swearingen earlier this year, determined the allegations were not credible and left the priest at his parish, Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fresno.
They said they forwarded reports on the matter to the District Attorney’s offices of Fresno and Kern counties in accordance with new church rules.
“He is a fine and dedicated priest and no other complaints have ever been received against him,” said a statement from Fresno Bishop John T. Steinbock.
Kern County prosecutors reviewed information about the case from the Bakersfield Police Department Thursday and rejected filing charges, said Deputy D.A. Lisa Green.
Green said state law required immediate rejection because the statute of limitations had expired. The corroboration necessary to waive the statute was not present, she said.
The Fresno County D.A.’s Office still is reviewing reports from law enforcement there, an official said.
At a press conference in Bakersfield, Rocha said he long felt something bad happened to him as a boy and even had nightmares about it.
This April, when he heard stories of alleged priest abuse elsewhere and went through some self-examination, his memories became clearer, he said.
Rocha said he contacted the Fresno diocese seeking help and to learn if Swearingen was still a practicing priest. After initially being shunned, he said, a church public relations representative advised him to call law enforcement and a lawyer.
Rocha contacted both.
“As I saw other survivors come out, I drew strength from that,” Rocha said.
Rocha is married with a child and lives in Colorado. He’s alleging negligent supervision, sexual abuse and battery and fraud.
Diocese spokesman William Lucido confirmed Swearingen worked at Our Lady of Guadalupe in the late 1980s. But he wasn’t ordained until 1987 and so the allegation he molested Rocha between 1985 and 1989 can’t be entirely accurate, Lucido said.
Lucido said the church gave Swearingen one week off from parish duties to cope with the allegations, which have been “devastating to him personally.”
Rocha said he was molested at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Bakersfield and when Swearingen worked at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Fresno. He said he met Swearingen at St. Therese Catholic Church in Shafter.