Visalia priest placed on leave named in report listing alleged abusers in Fresno Diocese

VISALIA, Calif. (KFSN) -- Jeff Anderson & Associates, a law firm that specializes in child sexual abuse cases, released a report last Wednesday naming 43 clerics associated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno who has been publicly accused of abuse.

Among them: Monsignor Craig Harrison, accused of molesting multiple teen boys and placed on paid administrative leave by the diocese this spring, and Visalia Priest Eric Swearingen who was placed on paid administrative leave the same day the report was released but under less clear circumstances.

Bishop Joseph Brennan says the action is related to information from a 2009 civil case, but couldn't comment further.

"Now why that has happened now is a question for the Diocese of Fresno," said attorney Mike Reck. "And the real question for the Diocese of Fresno is how many other priests have been alleged to have molested and abused children? How many priests, how many names is this diocese keeping secret?"

Father Swearingen became an ordained priest in 1987 and most recently served with the Good Shepherd Catholic Parish, which includes three churches in Visalia and one in Goshen.

But in 2003, a man named Juan Rocha filed a civil suit against the diocese in Fresno County Court, claiming Swearingen molested him for three years at churches in Bakersfield and Fresno.

The case ended in a mistrial, even though the jury and later an arbitrator found that Swearingen committed the abuse.

In a statement, Rocha's former attorney told Action News:
"It's the only case in the country where a priest was found by a jury to be a molester and then was reinstated as a priest in good standing. I can't believe with a zero tolerance policy officially in place by the church that the bishop (Steinbock at the time) would ignore a valid jury finding."

"We don't know what the full nature of the allegations are against Swearingen, against any of the priests that are there, because this diocese hasn't told us," Reck said. "And the danger is not in what we know. The danger is in what we don't know."

Reck said the only way to know is for the diocese to disclose their own list of accused predators within the church.

Last week, the diocese said it was fully engaged in addressing the sexual abuse, starting with a review of clergy files dating back 100 years.

The Diocese of Fresno is one of six dioceses throughout the state participating in a new compensation program for victims of sexual abuse.

Attorney Mike Reck said this program may be a good option for some victims, but he also says it has some significant limitations as far as eligibility.

Bishop Brennan says Swearingen is seriously ill right now.
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