There are at least 43 priests within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno who have been accused of sexual abuse or misconduct, according to a report released this week by a national law firm.
The data collected by Jeff Anderson & Associates exposes the "enormous magnitude" of the intentional cover-up of allegations of sexual abuse by the diocese.
“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,” The Anderson Report on Sexual Abuse in the Diocese of Fresno found.
Jeff Anderson & Associates is known nationwide for its work representing victims of sexual abuse against clergy for more than 25 years. They have offices in various states, including California.
The law firm has released various reports like these on other dioceses in the state and country, said Jeff Anderson, the founder of Jeff Anderson & Associates. They chose the Diocese of Fresno, he said, because they have “been less than transparent” when it comes to releasing names of accused priests.
“We’ve had Fresno on our radar for many years as having been a diocese that was dirty and that was secretive,” he said. “The Diocese of Fresno has been a location of grave concern to us for a long time.”
Lawsuits have been filed against many of the clerics listed, according to the report, but the “vast majority” have either been settled or not evaluated in court.
The church’s strict policy of secrecy kept allegations of sexual abuse against priests hidden from the public, the report found. This continues to happen despite laws that require the church to report allegations.
Throughout the report there are various examples of these findings.
For instance, Father Eric Swearingen was accused of sexually abusing an altar boy from 1989 to 1993 when he worked at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield, the report said. The alleged victim filed a lawsuit and it went to trial in 2006.
Although the jury found Swearingen guilty of sexual misconduct the case ended in a mistrial because not enough jurors found the Diocese of Fresno guilty of wrongdoing, according to the report. Instead of a retrial, Swearingen and the alleged victim entered a binding arbitration and settled the lawsuit out of court. The settlement has remained a secret.
“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,” the report said.
Since 2006, Swearingen has worked in various churches: Holy Spirit in Fresno; Holy Family in Visalia; St. Thomas the Apostle in Visalia; St. Mary in Visalia; and Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia.
When the report was published, Swearingen's status as a priest and whereabouts were unknown, but since then Anderson said he has confirmed Swearingen is still working at Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia.
Good Shepherd declined to comment and directed Valley Public Radio to Teresa Dominguez, the director of communications for the diocese. In a phone call, a staff member at the church said Swearingen was not available.
Dominguez did not respond to a request for comment regarding Swearingen.
On the homepage of Good Shepherd’s website, there is a welcome note from Swearingen:
“If you haven't been to church in a while, consider this my personal invitation,” the message says. “Come back and see all of the great things God is doing in our community and parish!”
Out of the 43 priests, Anderson said the whereabouts of 13 are unknown.
“Which means they could be in schools,” Anderson said. “They could be in any neighborhood. Knowing that the Catholic bishop is in the best and only position to really know is a source of great alarm for all of us and the survivors in the area.”
Some of the clerics listed were accused of sexual abuse while they were part of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno before the Diocese of Fresno was opened in 1967, the report said.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, or SNAP, released a list in May of 22 priests in the Diocese of Fresno who have been accused of sexual abuse. Out of the 22 priests listed, 19 were also named in the Anderson Report.
SNAP has called on the Fresno diocese to release a list of clerics who have been accused of sexual abuse. That hasn’t happened yet, but officials at the diocese say it’s in the works.
Dr. Kathleen McChesney, who was formerly with the FBI, has been reviewing all clergy files dating back 100 years, according to a statement from the diocese. Diocese officials said that will help them create a list of accused priests.