Philadelphia News & Search
A 74-year-old priest in Western Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg has been charged with sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy in the early 1990s.
The Rev. John T. Sweeney was arraigned Monday in Leechburg, Armstrong County, on a felony charge of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a minor. He was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond under the condition that he stay away from minors and witnesses in the case.
Sweeney, wearing civilian rather than clerical garb, declined to comment on his way to the arraignment before Magisterial District Judge Cheryl Peck-Yakopec.
The abuse allegedly occurred during the 1991-92 school year, according to a presentment by a statewide grand jury accompanying the criminal complaint.
The victim said he long kept the events secret but decided to come forward after watching the 2015 movie Spotlight, about sexual abuse by priests in Boston. Sweeney was a pastor at St. Margaret Mary in Lower Burrell at the time of the alleged abuse.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference Monday that the charges were recommended by a statewide grand jury. Shapiro lauded the alleged victim as a “hero” seeking to protect other children.
Several parishioners joined the crowd of reporters at the sidewalk news conference outside St. Margaret Mary Church. Gasps of dismay went up when Shapiro detailed the alleged assault.
Shapiro declined to give any broader update on the wide-ranging grand jury investigation. Last year, his office subpoenaed records of six Roman Catholic dioceses around Pennsylvania, including the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg.
Another grand jury report, in 2016 about the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, said hundreds of children were abused by at least 50 perpetrators, mainly between the 1940s and 1980s.
Lower Burrell police started investigating Sweeney after receiving an anonymous report and then one from a U.S. marshal who identified himself as a relative of the alleged victim. The police referred the case to the statewide grand jury.
According to the criminal complaint, the school principal sent the boy to see Sweeney due to misbehavior on a school bus. The priest allegedly directed the victim to perform oral sex on him, warning the boy that he would be in trouble if he didn’t comply.
The alleged victim said Sweeney’s secretary brought him milk and cookies after the sexual assault.
The grand jury presentment said Sweeney was “evasive” in testimony and said he forgot his secretary’s name but recalled it when evidence showed he had recently conducted her Funeral Mass.
Shapiro said his office would have brought other charges but for the statute of limitations. The penalty could be 20 years in prison, he said.
Francis Murrman, an attorney for Sweeney, said: “We intend to defend this vigorously.”
The Diocese of Greensburg “takes the protection of all children, young people and vulnerable adults seriously,” spokesman Jerry Zufelt said in a statement. “Every report of suspected abuse of a child, young person or vulnerable adult – sexual, physical or emotional – that is made to the diocese is immediately reported to the PA ChildLine (1-800-932-0313) and the appropriate district attorney.”
Zufelt said that Bishop Edward C. Malesic is calling on all Catholics to pray for victims of sexual abuse, and that the diocese continues to educate children and adults on “how to spot and report abuse.”
Sweeney now lives in housing for retired priests at the Bishop Connare Center in Greensburg.
Shapiro said he could not comment “on what the diocese knew or didn’t know at the time” the alleged abuse occurred.
The diocese said it first learned of the allegation from the Westmoreland County District Attorney’s Office last September.
“According to diocesan records, it was the first – and thus far is the only – complaint related to sexual abuse of a child that the Diocese of Greensburg has received concerning Father Sweeney,” it said.
The diocese said it immediately removed Sweeney from his position at Holy Family Parish in West Newton, where he had been since 2008. He was prohibited from ministering or presenting himself as a priest and was relocated to the retirement home (named for Bishop William Connare, who ordained Sweeney in 1970) and ordered not to have contact with children.
The diocese did not publicize the reason for his removal at “the request of law enforcement officials.”
Parish attendees who came to the news conference had mixed emotions.
Joy Gezo, a Protestant who regularly attends the parish with her husband, a Catholic, and whose son was baptized by Sweeney, said it would be painful for a victim to carry this secret for 26 years.
“How said it was for this victim,” she said. As a teacher herself, she has seen the impact of abuse on vulnerable children. “Usually when there’s one victim, there’s many victims,” she said.
Longtime parishioner Tom Thimons said he knew Sweeney throughout his tenure at the parish.
“He always has been a nice guy, good guy,” he said. “I don’t know whether or not this charge is valid, but even assuming it is valid, he’s still a good man who made a mistake.”
Philadelphia News & Search