Pennsylvania priest pleads guilty to sexually molesting 4th-grade boy
By Ivey Dejesus
July 31, 2018
|The Rev. John T. Sweeney, of the Diocese of Greensburg, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to committing a sexual assault against a 10-year-old boy. Sweeney pleaded guilty to one count of indecent assault at a hearing in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court. Sweeney was arrested and charged with assault last summer by the Office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro.|
Photo by Gene J. Puskar
|Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Tuesday announced charges against a Greensburg Diocese priest. Bishop Edward C. Malesic, the head of the Diocese of Greensburg, is seen here celebrating a service at St. Clair Park in Greensburg. |
Photo by Evan Sanders
As Catholic officials across Pennsylvania brace for what has been described as a graphic and blistering investigation report into clergy sex abuse, a Greensburg Diocese priest charged with child sex crimes on Tuesday pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a boy.
At a news conference Tuesday morning in Westmoreland County, Attorney General Josh Shapiro called Father John Sweeney of the Greensburg Diocese a predator.
"...(T)oday there is no doubt, John Sweeney is accepting full responsibility and admitting what he did," Shapiro said. Sweeney's victim, whose first name is Josh, stood to the right of Shapiro, flanked by deputy attorney generals.
Sweeney, 75, is the first priest convicted as a result of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, which recently concluded an investigation into sexually abusive priests and clergy in six of the state's eight Catholic dioceses, including the Diocese of Greensburg.
Sweeney answered "Yes, your Honor" several times as a Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court judge asked him to affirm his plea, according to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.
Sweeney was indicted last year.
The report, which remains under seal, is expected to be the most comprehensive look at clergy sex abuse in the world. The report identifies by name more than 300 priests who face credible accusations of child sex crimes.
According to the grand jury's presentment, while in fourth grade at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School during the 1991-92 school year, the victim, Josh, was sent to Sweeney for discipline because he had been disruptive on a school bus. The grand jury found that Sweeney used his authority and position as a priest, under the guise of a disciplinarian, to force the victim to perform oral sex on Sweeney in a conference room next to Sweeney's office inside the St. Margaret Mary Parish.
Sweeney continued in ministry as a priest for approximately 16 years after abusing the victim. Sweeney was assigned to various parishes during his tenure as a priest in the diocese.
Shapiro stood next to Sweeney's victim, a man in his thirties who was identified by his first name only. Shapiro praised Josh, who serves in the U.S. Coast Guard, for his bravery.
"Josh is a hero to come forward to tell his difficult truth about Sweeney because of his concern that other children could be harmed if Sweeney were not held accountable," Shapiro said. "Once a victim finds the courage to come forward, law enforcement should take action. For his crime, Sweeney has pleaded guilty before the court in Westmoreland, and before the citizens of the Commonwealth, to the sexual abuse of a child."
Josh addressed the press conference, saying that he was inspired to tell his story after watching the movie "Spotlight," which chronicled the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston.
"I struggled with coming out for a long time but after seeing that film, I could related to lot of victims in that film...I knew it was institutional problem and not just a one time incident," he said.
"I'm very glad I did. I'm sorry it has taken me so long. I want to speak to the victims out there. I understand your struggle and pain...I'm telling if you are a Pennsylvania resident that this attorney's office will prosecute."
The report issued by the 40th Statewide Grand Jury has been under seal and a court stay order. It is due to be released no later than Aug. 14. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week ordered the Commonwealth to release a redacted report by that date, if not earlier. If no challenges from individuals named in the report seeking to have their names redacted are filed, the report could be released to the public earlier.
In May, Shapiro charged David Poulson, a priest from the Diocese of Erie with child sex crime charges, including felonies. Poulson has been arrested and forced to resign as pastor by Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico.
Tuesday's guilty plea on the part of Sweeney comes amid a spiraling scandal in the worldwide church. On Saturday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Archbishops Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals, and suspended him from the exercise of any public ministry.
McCarrick faces credible allegations of sexually abusing, assaulting, or coercing seminarians and young priests during his time as a bishop; as well as sexually molesting a teenager in the Archdiocese of New York.
Francis is also dealing with a debacle in the church in Chile, and has accepted the resignations of several Chilean bishops there for their role in clerical sexual abuse.
The Diocese of Greensburg covers the counties of Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana, and Westmoreland, and is under the leadership of Bishop Edward C. Malesic, who was appointed in 2015 by Pope Francis. Malesic was born in Harrisburg.
The diocese has been named in a number of lawsuits alleging clergy sex abuse of children over the years. In 2005 lawsuit filed in Westmoreland County court, a 52-year-old man accused the late Rev. Francis Lesniak of abusing him in the mid-1960s, when the man was a 12- or 13-year-old boy.
Earlier this month, Persico, of Erie, released addition names to a list of priests and laypeople who the diocese said have been "credibly accused of actions that, in the diocese's judgment, disqualify each person from working with children." The list now includes 64 names. Persico warns that the report is graphic.
The state Supreme Court on Monday appointed appointed Senior Judge John M. Cleland, of the Court of Common Pleas of McKean County, as the special master on the ongoing legal challenges to the grand jury report. Cleland, who once presided over the Jerry Sandusky criminal case, has been tasked with determining how much of the findings are redacted.
Sweeney's assignments include:
Holy Family Church, Latrobe, 1970
Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Greensburg, 1975
St. Hedwig Church, Smock, 1980
St. Mary, Freeport, 1982
St. Margaret Mary, Lower Burrell, 1985
St. James Parish, Apollo, 1998
Holy Family Parish, West Newton, 2008
Shapiro asked any member of the public with information about sexual abuse by Sweeney or any priest to contact the Office of Attorney General's Clergy Abuse Hotline at 1-888-538-8541. The investigation into sexual abuse by priests is ongoing