Father Eric Swearingen among 43 priests in Fresno Diocese accused of sexual abuse since the 1940s

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA —A Visalia priest has been placed on paid administrative leave in the wake of a new report chronicling a history of sexual abuse within the Fresno Diocese of the Catholic church.

In a letter addressed to the “People of God,” Most Reverend Joseph V. Brennan, bishop of the Diocese of Fresno, announced that Father Eric Swearingen, pastor of the Good Shepherd Parish in Visalia, had been placed on paid leave as of June 5. The letter was read during both Sunday and Saturday mass at the parish’s four congregations at St. Charles Borromoeo, Holy Family, and St. Mary’s in Visalia, and St. Thomas The Apostle in Goshen. The parish also oversees George McCann Memorial, a kindergarten through eighth grade Catholic school, and the Bethlehem Center, a thrift store and food pantry.

“This action was necessary in light of detailed information associated with a civil case dating back to 2006 that was brought to my attention following a file review,” Most Rev. Brennan stated in the letter. “I am not able to offer further details.”

The civil case mentioned was a high profile lawsuit involving former altar boy Juan Rocha who accused Fr. Swearingen of sexually abusing him from 1989 to 1993 during the priest’s first assignment at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield, Calif. The jury found Fr. Swearingen guilty of child sexual abuse in a 9-3 vote but fell short of the nine votes required to find the Diocese of Fresno guilty of wrongdoing resulting in a mistrial. Instead of a retrial, Fr. Swearingen and Rocha entered a binding arbitration to settle the lawsuit, the terms of which remain undisclosed.

Fr. Swearingen was named pastor of the Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in 2014. It was a homecoming for the priest who grew up attending George McCann and graduated from Redwood High School in 1979. As of 2018, Fr. Swearingen was still working at Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia despite being diagnosed with a brain tumor on Aug. 15, 2017, according to a letter from former Bishop Armando Ochoa to the clergy and pastoral staff the following day. A picture of Fr. Swearingen still remains on the Good Shepherd’s web site at www.gscparish.com. Fr. Swearingen has worked at more than 10 parishes since he was ordained in 1987 and has spent his entire priesthood in the Diocese of Fresno.

“Fr. Swearingen was found guilty of sexual abuse, but has faced no punitive action and was allowed to continue working as a priest, overseeing youth ministries,” stated The Anderson Report: Sexual Abuse in the Diocese of Fresno released by Jeff Anderson and Associates on June 5, a few days before Fr. Swearingen was placed on leave.

A Stain of the Cloth

Jeff Anderson & Associates has been representing victims in childhood sexual abuse cases since the 1980s. The firm is based in St. Paul, Minn. but has regional offices in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and New York and has testified before legislators against individuals, youth service organizations, and churches. The firm has focused on clergy sexual abuse since 2002 when the Boston archdiocese was accused of ignoring years of warnings about priests accused of molesting 130 people, the focus of the 2015 Academy Award Winning film “Spotlight.”

The announcement of Fr. Swearingen’s status was made just days after the release of a new report detailing a history of alleged, admitted and convicted sexual abuse cases in the Diocese of Fresno. The report lists 43 priests who have been accused, charged, or found guilty of sexual abuse of children while assigned with the Diocese of Fresno dating back to 1943.

“We don’t really know the real number,” said Mike Reck, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates in Los Angeles. “This diocese has chosen not to put out information the way other diocese have in California.”

The Diocese of Fresno has been named in multiple lawsuits for having employed sexually abusive priests since 2003, when the California legislature opened a one-year, retroactive window for survivors of child abuse to file civil claims against the perpetrators and the institutions that covered it up.

“While lawsuits were filed involving many of these alleged perpetrators, the vast majority of the claims against these individuals have been settled or have not been fully evaluated in a civil or criminal court,” the report states.

The allegations date back to 1943, when the Central Valley parishes were part of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno. Fresno split with Monterey in 1967, when Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Manning was appointed Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Fresno. Bishop Manning was later transferred to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1969 where he supervised hundreds of priests who sexually abused minors until he retired in 1985, according to the report. Manning was succeeded by Cardinal Roger Mahony who served as auxiliary bishop of Fresno from 1975-1980. One of the cardinal’s first investigations into a clerical sexual abuse case involved Father William Allison, a priest of the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana. Fr. Allison received treatment at the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico, a facility known to treat sexually abusive priests, after he allegedly abused several children in the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico. After Cardinal Mahony’s investigation was complete, he transferred Fr. Allison to the Diocese of Fresno. After supervising more accused priests in Stockton, Cardinal Mahony was appointed Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where he supervised hundreds of clerics who sexually abused children. Documents released as part of the Archdiocese’s 2007 settlement with survivors of child sexual abuse showed that top officials, including Cardinal Mahony, “maneuvered behind the scenes to shield molester priests, provide damage control for the church and keep parishioners in the dark.”

Cardinal Mahony was relieved of his administrative and public duties in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2013. It is believed he is living in North Hollywood, Calif., but his current status as a priest, his whereabouts, and whether he has access to children are unknown, according to the Anderson report.

“The data collected suggests the patterns and practices of Church officials, including the orchestrating of an institutional cover-up of an enormous magnitude,” The Anderson Report states. “Perhaps most shocking among the discoveries is that some perpetrators were intentionally transferred and retained in trusted positions with direct access to children even when they were known to be abusers.”

Confessions of Data

The report goes on to provide a timeline of sexual abuse of children within the Diocese of Fresno, which stretches from the coastal foothills to the Nevada state line encompassing the counties of Merced, Madera, Mariposa, Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Kern and Inyo.

The assignment histories, allegations, and court rulings for each priest were compiled from the Official Catholic Directory, bishopaccountability.org, statements attributed to Diocesan and Religious officials, Diocesan and Religious records, public records and media reports.

Among the accused priests with assignments in Tulare County are:

-Brother Samuel Cabot, who served at St. Anthony’s Retreat in Three Rivers from 1971-1972, has been named in three civil suits. A report was made in 2002 alleging that Br. Cabot sexually abused a minor from 1977 to 1985. He died earlier this year.

-Brother Felix “Raymond” Calogne left the Order of Friars Minor in 1966 following a one-year stint at St. Anthony’s Retreat in Three Rivers. A 2018 report alleged that Br. Calogne sexually abused a minor in 1965. His current whereabouts and whether he has access to children are unknown.

-Brother Gerald Chumik, who served at St. Anthony’s Retreat from 1985-1986 and 1997-2003, allegedly sexually abused a minor in approximately 1973 while serving in Mexican Missions in Guaymas, Sonora as a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Province of St. Barbara.

-Father Raul Diaz, who served at St. Anne in Porterville from 1998-1999 and St. Catherine of Siena in Dinuba from 2007-2018, was placed on paid administrative leave last month pending investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Bishop Joseph V. Brennan is quoted saying that a report was made which alleged that “Fr. Diaz has engaged in inappropriate behavior that may include inappropriate contact with minors.” Bishop Brennan further stated that law enforcement is involved in this investigation. Fr. Diaz’s current whereabouts, status as a priest and whether he has access to children are unknown.

-Father Louis Aloysius Garcia, who served at St. Thomas the Apostle in Goshen from 1970-1971, was accused of sexually abusing developmentally disabled patients, possibly during his time at the Porterville State Hospital from 1979-1980. He was charged with 19 counts relating to child sexual abuse which involved six male and two female patients. Some of the charges were dismissed, but he was eventually convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Fr. Garcia’s current status as a priest, his whereabouts, and whether he has access to children are unknown.

-Monsignor Anthony Herdegen, who was assigned to St. Anne in Porterville from 1981-1982, retired from the clergy in 1995. In 2003, he was accused of sexually abusing a boy for 14 years, beginning when the survivor was a young minor. The boy’s older brother also accused Msgr. Herdegen of sexually abusing him after the brother attempted to protect his younger brother. The case was initially dismissed due to lack of evidence; however, later, an appellate court unanimously agreed that Msgr. Herdegen had sexually abused the brothers but that the Church had no knowledge of the events and thus was not liable. During the trial, it is reported that one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys received a call from a man claiming that Msgr. Herdegen had sexually abused him in 1967, two years prior to the sexual abuse of the brothers. The man claims to have told the school principal about the abuse, but no action was ever taken. As of 2009, Msgr. Herdegen had admitted to sexually abusing the two brothers, but he remained a retired priest in good standing. Msgr. Herdegen’s status as a priest, his whereabouts, and whether he had access to children from 2005 until his death are unknown.

-Father David “Dave” Johnson, who served at St. Anthony’s Retreat in Three Rivers from 1988-1989, has been named in five civil suits alleging sexual abuse of minors. In 2019, Fr. Johnson was included in the Franciscan Friars Province of Santa Barbara’s “List of Franciscan Friars from the St. Barbara Province with Credibly (sic) Claims of Sexual Abuse of a Minor” in the section, “Former Province of St. Barbara Friars Who Have Been Credibly Accused Who Have Left The Order.” According to this list, reports were made in 1993, 2006, 2007, and 2009 alleging that Fr. Johnson sexually abused minors from approximately 1978 to 1982. As of 2016, Fr. Johnson was believed to be living in Hurricane, Utah. Whether he has access to children is unknown.

-Monsignor Joseph Pacheco served at St. Aloysius and St. Rita’s in Tulare from 1962-1967, where alleged sexual abuse of children took place, along with Sacred Heart in Merced in the 1960s, according to a 2003 civil suit. Filed long after Pacheco’s death in 1997, the lawsuit also alleged the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno covered up the abuse. Bishop John J. Steinbock of the Fresno Diocese publicly apologized for the sexual abuse after the lawsuit was settled in 2006.

“Modern means of analysis and availability of data through the Internet and social media is exposing perpetrators who operated in this Diocese, but until full transparency and accountability exist, children remain in grave danger,” the report concluded.

Victim Compensation

In response to the report, Bishop Joseph Brennan issued a statement saying that the “Diocese of Fresno takes very seriously the responsibility of maintaining a safe environment for its children.” The statement goes on to say that Dr. Kathleen McChesney, former FBI official and her associates, are reviewing all clergy files dating back nearly 100 years to create a list of clergy who have been credibly accused of improper conduct with minors.

The Diocese of Fresno stated it is participating in the Independent Compensation Program, to be administered by nationally known mediators, where victim-survivors, including undocumented immigrants, will be able to apply for compensation for past abuse, regardless of when that abuse occurred. Fully completed and documented claims will be determined within 90 days of a victim-survivor filing a claim.

The new Independent Compensation Program for Victim-Survivors of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests is independent from Church control.

The diocese said it will be reaching out to victims who have previously reported allegations of abuse to alert them to this new program. Anyone who has been abused by a priest as a minor but has not reported is encouraged to contact law enforcement where the abuse took place, prior to applying to the Independent Compensation Program.

“I have confidence in the steps in place, including the Independent Compensation Program,” Most Rev. Brennan said in the statement. “It is understood that nothing will ever truly compensate for the harm that has been done. Only God has the power to heal the wounds of abuse. However, the Church is working to accompany those and support those who are on the path to healing.”

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