Former Greensburg diocese priest pleads guilty to lesser charge in sexual assault case

August 4, 2018 GMT

A priest in the Greensburg diocese who was accused of molesting a Lower Burrell Catholic school student 25 years ago pleaded guilty Tuesday to a reduced misdemeanor charge of indecent assault.

The retired Rev. John Thomas Sweeney will be sentenced later by Westmoreland County Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio. Sweeney, 74, faces up to five years in prison and remains free on bail. He had been charged with one count of felony involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

Sweeney long denied sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy who attended St. Margaret Mary Church school in Lower Burrell between September 1991 and June 1992. Sweeney was church pastor at the time.

Sweeney, who served in seven parishes, most recently was assigned to Holy Family Parish in West Newton. He retired in December 2016.

His attorney, Francis R. Murrman, said Sweeney agreed to plead guilty because he was remorseful and in poor health.

“You can certainly imagine the stress caused by the criminal charge and the effect it has upon an older individual who is in poor health,” said Murrman, who added that Sweeney is expected to comment at his sentencing hearing in about three months.

Greensburg diocese officials said in a statement that they fully cooperated with the investigation.

“His priestly faculties were immediately revoked, and he was placed on administrative leave Sept. 21, 2016, after the allegation was received by the diocese,” spokesman Jerry Zufelt said of Sweeney in the statement. “Additionally, he was prohibited from presenting himself as a priest in public, and he was required to avoid any unsupervised contact with minors. He retired Dec. 31, 2016. All the restrictions remain in place currently. This allegation dates to the early 1990s, and Father Sweeney’s file contained no prior allegations of sexual misconduct of any kind.”

A state grand jury that investigated alleged sex crimes committed by priests in six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses -- including the ones based in Greensburg and Pittsburgh -- concluded that Sweeney’s alleged actions supported charges of indecent assault and corrupting the morals of a minor. Daniel J. Dye, senior deputy state attorney general, last year said the statute of limitations pertaining to those charges expired before the incident was reported to police.

The victim -- a man in his 30s who identified himself as Josh and who serves in the U.S. Coast Guard -- reported the abuse in 2016 after watching “Spotlight,” the Academy Award-winning movie about sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston.

“After seeing that film, I could relate to a lot of the characters or victims in that film and saw the impact they had on the community there,” he said Tuesday during a news conference at the courthouse in downtown Greensburg that also included Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “I knew it was an institutional problem and not just a one-time incident, so I decided to come forward at that point. I’m very glad that I did. I’m sorry that it has taken me this long.”

Shapiro said predator priests will continue to be prosecuted by his office, which led the 22-month grand jury investigation that looked into allegations of sexual abuse in the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.

The state Supreme Court ruled last week that redacted portions of the grand jury’s nearly 900-page report will be made public this month. Other portions will be kept secret as the court hears arguments by 14 people named in the report but not charged with crimes. They claim releasing those parts of the report would violate their state constitutional rights.

“No one is above the law,” Shapiro said. ”(Sweeney) used his position as a priest to gain access to a child to commit this horrible crime.”

Josh was a fourth-grader when he was sent to Sweeney to be disciplined for being disruptive on a bus. Shapiro said Sweeney used his authority under the guise of a disciplinarian to force Josh to perform oral sex in a conference room next to his office at the church.

Afterward, a church secretary brought the boy milk and cookies, according to prosecutors.

“There is no doubt that Father Sweeney is a predator priest,” Shapiro said.

Sweeney is one of as many as 300 priests expected to be identified in a grand jury report, Shapiro said.

Until his retirement, Sweeney worked as a priest at seven parishes in the Greensburg diocese, which covers Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland counties. According to Shapiro’s office, he served as an associate pastor at Holy Family Church in Latrobe starting in 1970 and moved to Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg in the same position in 1975.

Sweeney served as a pastor at St. Hedwig Church in Smock, Fayette County, in 1980 until he moved to St. Mary in Freeport, Armstrong County, in 1982. He began his tenure at St. Margaret Mary in Lower Burrell in 1985. He moved to St. James Parish in Apollo, Armstrong County, in 1998. Sweeney started his last assignment as pastor of Holy Family Parish in West Newton in 2008.

Bilik-DeFazio ordered the county’s probation office to investigate Sweeney’s background. An evaluation also will be conducted by the state’s Sexual Offender’s Assessment Board to determine whether Sweeney should be classified as a sexually violent predator.

Sweeney, who currently lives at the diocese’s Bishop Connaire Center in Greensburg, will move in the coming months, his lawyer said.

“The diocese wants him out,” Murrman said.

Sweeney told the judge he would seek to relocate somewhere possibly in Allegheny or Washington counties.

To facilitate Sweeney’s guilty plea, prosecutors reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. The charge of indecent assault involved the same set of facts and allegations against Sweeney, according to Shapiro.

“I believe there are more victims, in general,” Shapiro said, calling for people who had contact with Sweeney and others to contact his office.

Sweeney’s victim said he wants to be an example to others who were abused.

“I just hope more people come forward. Please have the courage, please. You have nothing to lose,” Josh said. “You will be a victim until the day you come forward. The day you come out, you will be a victor.”