Both were abused by Fresno priest
Because of new evidence, judge will hold a second trial
A third victim comes forward, saying he reported crimes to church years ago
A man who was sexually assaulted as a child by a Fresno diocesan priest has won a new trial but his brother has not.
In April, George and Howard Santillan lost their civil child molestation and cover up case against the Fresno Catholic Diocese, when jurors said there was insufficient evidence to prove that church officials knew or should have known Msgr. Anthony Herdegen was a predator.
Later that month, however, the brothers tried to get a second chance. Their attorneys filed a request in Fresno County Superior Court asking Judge Donald S. Black to grant them another trial. The document cites newly discovered evidence as one of the factors.
Part of that evidence is the testimony of an Arizona man, Patrick Wright, who says his family reported Herdegen?s abuse to a Catholic school principal in between the times George and Howard Santillan were abused. On Friday, in a 17 page order, Black granted a new trial for Howard, the younger brother, but not for George. No new trial date has been set yet.
“It seems clear that Fresno church officials new that Patrick was a victim, but they kept this secret, like Catholic employees have done for decades,” said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, who heads a support group called SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). “We are grateful for Patrick?s courage, and that a jury will get to hear his testimony.”
From 1959 to 1972, the Santillans were repeatedly molested by Herdegen in the town of Wasco (near Bakersfield). Fresno Catholic officials do not dispute that the crimes took place. Herdegen now lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
SNAP deplores bishops’ use of what the group calls “legal technicalities” in clergy sex abuse and cover up cases.
“If bishops claim accused predator priests are innocent, they should defend the alleged molesters on the merits, not on the technicalities,” said SNAP national director David Clohessy of St. Louis, who attended part of the recent Fresno trial. “Let the evidence come out in open court, and let the justice system work, instead of short circuiting it by taking advantage of every conceivable legal loophole to prevent a trial.”
Before and after the trial, clergy sex abuse victims begged Fresno Catholic Bishop John Steinbock to aggressively reach out to others who may have seen, suspected or suffered Herdegen’s crimes.
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who heads the nation’s largest Catholic diocese, was a witness in the trial, as was Steinbock and his predecessor, now-retired Bishop Jose Madera.
A current Fresno diocesan priest, Fr. Roger Craig, also testified. Even though several diocesan staff, including Steinbock, admit Herdegen molested the Santillan brothers, Craig said under oath that he believed the crimes did not happen.
In 2006, SNAP also harshly criticized Steinbock for re-assigning Fr. Eric Swearingen to be rector of San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno. A jury found that Swearingen had molested a boy named Juan Rocha. However, Rocha’s trial ended in a hung jury, again because of insufficient evidence that the diocese had known Swearingen was a child molester previously.
“An unbiased jury spent days hearing witnesses and examining evidence. They believed that Swearingen molested this boy,” said Clohessy. “Still, Steinbock is opting to recklessly and callously play Russian roulette with kids’ lives and put a predator where he can have unfettered access to kids. How can he justify such an irresponsible move?”
“On the most crucial question, an impartial jury found that Swearingen sexually abused a boy. Juan should feel proud and Catholics should feel grateful that a predator has been exposed,” said Barbara Dorris, SNAP’s outreach director. “It’s now up to Fresno church officials to aggressively reach out to others who may have been hurt by Swearingen, and urge them to call the police so that this child molesting cleric might be criminally prosecuted and kept away from kids.”
At the time of the trial, Swearingen was pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Woodward Park. Rocha had accused Swearingen of molesting him at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield and at St. Alphonsus parish in southwest Fresno when Rocha was between 12 and 15 years old.
The Santillan brothers are represented by attorneys Jeff Anderson (651-227-9990, 612-817-8665 cell), Anthony De Marco of Los Angeles (310-854-4444, 310 927 9277 cell) and Rob Waters of Stockton (209-466-0982). Fresno lawyers Rosemary McGuire and James Weakley defended the diocese.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the nation’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. It has been around for 20 years and has more than 9,000 members across the country. Its website is SNAPnetwork.org)
David Clohessy of St. Louis, MO, SNAP National Director 314-566-9790,
Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, SNAP Outreach Director 314-862-7688,
Barbara Blaine, SNAP president 312-399-4747