One priest has been put on leave since a report was released last week by a Minnesota-based law firm listing 43 priests within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno who have been accused of sexual abuse or misconduct.
Father Eric Swearingen was put on paid administrative leave June 5, officials at the diocese confirmed Tuesday.
“This action was necessary in light of detailed information associated with a civil case dating back to 2009 that was brought to my attention following a file review,” said a statement issued by Bishop Joseph V. Brennan. “I am not able to offer further details.”
The news was first made public during mass on June 8 and 9, said Teresa Dominguez, director of communications for the diocese. Either the bishop or Deacon Henry Medina delivered the news to church goers during all masses at four churches in the Visalia area: The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Holy Family; St. Charles Borromeo; and St. Thomas the Apostle.
The Anderson Report on Sexual Abuse in the Diocese of Fresno was also released June 5 by Jeff Anderson & Associates. Swearingen was among the priests listed, and according to the report, in 2002, an altar boy accused him of sexual abuse when he was a minor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield. The alleged abuse happened between 1989 and 1993.
The alleged victim filed a lawsuit that went to trial in 2006, the report said. A jury found Swearengin guilty of sexual misconduct; however, because the jury did not find the diocese guilty of any wrongdoing it ended in a mistrial.
The lawsuit was settled in a binding attribution, the report said, and the conclusion has remained a secret.
Since 2006, Swearengin continued to work at Valley churches including: 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.
Swearingen was ordained in 1987, according to the report, and has worked in more than 10 parishes in Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia.
The Fresno Diocese has not released its own list of priests accused of sexual abuse. Jeff Anderson & Associates released the report as a way to put pressure on the diocese to release its own list, said Jeff Anderson, the founder of the law firm.
“How many (accused priests) there actually are that the bishop knows about? We don’t know,” Anderson said. “So we released that report with the idea of alerting communities [...] and also to inform people about the dangerous practices still being employed by the Catholic bishops in Fresno.”
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests has also pressured the diocese to release a list of accused priests.
Officials at the Fresno Diocese have said they’re reviewing all clergy files dating back 100 years to compile a list of accused priests.
Anderson said he's worked with survivors and filed lawsuits against Catholic bishops in the state and country for 36 years. Although he's seen some new policies put in place, protocols change, and promises made, "when it comes to real action I haven't really seen them change much," he said.
"They're (parishes) still adhering to strict secrecy and self-protection," Anderson said. "Their priority is still to protect the reputation of the diocese and to keep the information held in their secret files."
This is the sixth report Jeff Anderson & Associates has released on dioceses in the state, Anderson said. Twenty-four other reports have been released around the country.
The law firm is known nationwide for its work representing victims of sexual abuse against priests for more than 25 years. It has offices around the country, including California.
“We’ve been working diligently to release reports where dioceses have not, and been totally silent and totally secret and that’s why Fresno ranked among the worst when it comes to transparency," Anderson said.
In October, Jeff Anderson & Associates filed a lawsuit on behalf of Thomas Emens against 11 out of the state's 12 Catholic dioceses, including Fresno. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges California dioceses continue to hide information about priests who have been accused of sexual misconduct against minors. The California Catholic Conference of Bishops, which oversees the state’s dioceses, has said it has policies implemented to protect minors from abuse. The lawsuit is ongoing.