New Developments in Priest Sex Abuse Trial

March 23, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The trial involving some of California's top Catholic leaders is entering the final week in Downtown Fresno.Two brothers are suing the Diocese of Fresno accusing church officials of covering up sexual abuse.

Another victim testified about the abuse he faced from Monsignor Anthony Herdegen. Bishop John Steinbock also faced questions about his handling of another local case.

Howard Santillan said his childhood was ruined. Santillan testified his time at St John's Parish in Wasco was filled with constant molestation. Howard and his brother George told very similar stories of Monsignor Herdegen sexually assaulting them more than 30 years ago. The monsignor admitted to molesting the brothers.

Monday morning, Bishop Steinbock's testimony drew an emotional response. He said, "I never have returned anyone to ministry that I believe was guilty of sex abuse." But the victims' attorneys grew angry asking, what about Father Eric Swearingen? A former altar boy claimed Father Swearingen molested him at churches in Fresno and Bakersfield twenty years ago. In 2006, a jury found that allegation true. But that case ended in a mistrial because the jurors could not agree on whether the church ignored the abuse. Despite jurors believing Swearingen molested a child, the Bishop allowed Swearingen to remain a priest. To this day, Father Swearingen is a pastor at Holy Spirit. Bishop Steinbock stood by the father saying, "I do not believe that was credible at all .. I believe he was absolutely innocent."

The brother's attorneys believe Bishop Steinbock has covered up the church's past. But the Bishop said he did everything in his power to protect children while attending church.

More witnesses will be called Tuesday morning. Fresno's previous Bishop Joseph Madera is scheduled to testify. Bishop Madera left the diocese in 1991. At this pace, the jury could begin deliberating by the end of this week.

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