A Very Troubling Case: Fr. Swearingen of Fresno

by | Jun 4, 2024 | Catholic Church

Eric Swearingen Horowitz Law

Like dozens of his colleagues, Fresno Bishop Joseph V. Brennan plans to continue hiding important information about his clerical colleagues and underlings who have committed and concealed child sex crimes.’ How? By filing for Chapter 11 in federal court soon. Let’s make this inexcusable and irresponsible goal – even more secrecy about abuse –  more challenging for Bishop Brennan. How? By looking more closely at his diocese and some of the most noteworthy (i.e., awful) priests there who have hurt kids. Towards this end, there may be no better person to start with than Fr. Eric Swearingen.

Please read the underlined and bolded sentence below carefully. At first, you may react to it with skepticism or even disbelief. But we assure you:  it’s entirely accurate:

In 2006, after a trial, nine of 12 jurors ruled that Fr. Swearingen likely abused a boy, but Fresno church officials kept him on the job for 13 more years, moving him to three towns, including SIX YEARS as rector of a Catholic high school.

Yes, you read that correctly: A majority of jurors – average citizens who heard hours of testimony and examined pages of records and who knows how much other evidence – formally found and voted that Fr. Swearingen sexually violated a youngster. Yet they kept him on the payroll and around children, some at a Catholic school for six more years. 

Even worse, three Fresno prelates are responsible for this decade of reckless decisions: Bishop John Steinbock (who headed the diocese from 1991 until 2010), Bishop Armando Ochoa (who headed the diocese from 2012 until 2019), and Bishop Joseph V. Brennan

How could these top church officials justify keeping Fr. Swearingen in positions of power and prestige AFTER nine jurors – out of 12 – determined he’d molested a kid? As you might expect, they had a rationale or – as some would say – an excuse for their behavior.

Ultimately, the case was declared a mistrial. Why? Because jurors were told they had to say ‘yes’ to two questions: Did the abuse happen, AND did Fr. Swearingen’s supervisors know about his sexual difficulties before he abused this boy? Jurors answered the first question affirmatively. But not the second. A “technicality,” some would say. 

Adding insult to injury, then-Bishop Steinbock put Fr. Swearingen back into a parish roughly two weeks after the trial ended. A more sensitive and prudent leader would likely have thought, “Well, if he’s hurt other kids, one or more of them might be upset at the mistrial and decide to come forward now. So I should play it safe and keep Fr. Swearingen on suspension for a while.”

But that didn’t happen. Remember: All US bishops, in 2002, agreed that when a ‘substantiated’ abuse was made against a cleric, he’d promptly be suspended. What could better substantiate an abuse allegation than a trial followed by a 75% majority of jurors agreeing that the accused predator did indeed assault a child? Admittedly, a criminal conviction would have even more weight, of course. But the civil justice system has ruled here. Yet three successive Fresno bishops are essentially thumbing their noses at Fr. Swearingen’s victim, a judge, nine jurors, and the court system, saying, “Trust our judgment, not theirs.”

Then, making an  awful situation worse, the diocese’s website provides  little information about Fr. Swearingen. Though he worked in at least seven towns over 32 years – from his ordination in 1987 through his second suspension in 2019 – he’s mentioned just three times on the official Fresno Diocese’s website.

Surely, during his long career and legal difficulties, Fresno church officials must have issued dozens of news releases and other statements about him and the allegations. However, none of those releases or statements can now be found on the diocesan website. To make all this clearer and simpler, there’s a detailed timeline of Fr. Swearingen’s assignment history and the legal and diocesan rulings about him:

  • In 2002, he was accused of molesting an altar boy at Our Lady Of Guadalupe in Bakersfield over several years when the boy was 12-15 years old. 
  • In 2002, because of that allegation, Fr. Swearingen was briefly put on leave.
  • At some later point that same year, church officials claimed the allegation was ‘not credible,’ and the District Attorney opted not to pursue criminal charges, citing no evidence and no witnesses.
  • In November 2002, Fr. Swearingen was put back on the job.
  • As we mentioned above, a civil case against him ended in a mistrial in December 2006. This was not because few or no jurors found that Fr. Swearingen committed crimes. Most jurors felt that he did. But they couldn’t agree whether church officials had “prior knowledge.” (The suit required both claims to be true.)
  • In May 2007, both sides agreed to binding arbitration. A decision was made, but—per the agreement—it was to be kept secret.
  • In December 2007, Fr. Swearingen was named rector of San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, a diocesan high school.
  • In June 2014, he was named pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia (Good Shepherd).
  • In June 2019, Fr.  Swearingen was put on leave again. Church officials claimed they’d received ‘new information’ about him from the 2006 civil case.
  • In January 2020, he passed away.

Finally, Fr. Swearingen is on the list of ‘credibly accused’ abusers in Fresno.

About Fr. Eric Swearingen

Fr. Swearingen was assigned, in roughly this order, to these church institutions: Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield, Holy Spirit in Bakersfield, St. Jude’s in Bakersfield, Our Lady of Victory in Fresno, St. Alphonsus in Fresno, St. Helen’s in Fresno, St. Peter’s in Lemoore, St. Joseph’s in Stratford, St. Rosa’s on the Tache Indian Reservation, St. Agnes in Pinedale, Holy Spirit in Fresno, Infant Jesus of Prague in Tollhouse, San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, Good Shepherd in Visalia and at the St. John Vianney House in Fresno. He was also a ‘diocesan consultor’ on these church committees: the Diocesan Personnel Committee, the Priests’ Council, and the Vicars Forane.

Fr. Eric Swearingen was ordained a priest in 1987 and served in the Diocese of Fresno. According to media reports, in 2002, Father Eric Swearingen was accused of sexually abusing a minor from 1989 to 1993 while working at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield, CA. The victim was an altar boy at the parish and filed a lawsuit that went to trial in 2006. The jury found the defendant guilty of child sex abuse but fell short of enough votes to find the Diocese of Fresno guilty of any wrongdoing.

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and numerous sexual assault lawsuits against massage therapists. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization, doctor, professional, or therapist sexually abused you, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today.