Tennessee abuse case settled after allegations ‘one of the most respected priests’ exploited adult converting to Catholicism

Chattanooga Times Free Press [Chattanooga TN]

July 3, 2021

By Wyatt Massey

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville has settled an abuse lawsuit against “one of the most respected priests in the diocese” who was accused of sexually exploiting an adult woman he converted to the Catholic faith in 2000.

In the lawsuit, Celeste Arnone accused the Rev. Michael Sweeney of sexual assault and exploitation, severe psychological distress, defamation, the loss of faith in God and the loss of her marriage. She also accused the diocese of negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress for its handling of her allegations after they were first reported.

“I hope my case will help survivors to, first of all, realize that this is not your fault, even if you might think it is, and it may take years to realize what actually did happen to you,” Arnone said in a statement to the Times Free Press.

The news comes as Pope Francis has moved to reform church law to recognize adults can be victims of sexual abuse from clergy or other church authorities where there is a power imbalance. And starting this month, Tennessee law will explicitly criminalize sexual contact between a person and a member of the clergy, as well as health care professionals, during the course of treatment or therapy because the victim is incapable of consent.

The diocese, which includes Catholic churches in Southeast Tennessee, told the Times Free Press it would not offer specific comment on the settlement related to an allegation from something that happened more than 20 years ago.

“Father Sweeney has been a good priest and a dedicated pastor in this diocese and he has the full support, trust, and confidence of Bishop [Richard] Stika,” the diocese said in a statement. “Father Sweeney has confronted his personal issues and apologized for a mistake he made many years ago. Any inference that he is less of a person or a pastor in this regard is unfair and lacking in the core Christian values of contrition and forgiveness.”

The settlement was financial and did not include any changes to church policy. The diocese, as well as Arnone, declined to make public the amount of the settlement.

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Most Rev. Richard Stika, Bishop of Knoxville, speaks during the First Session of the Tribunal of the Inquiry That Will Examine the Life, Virtues, Offering of Life, Reputation of Holiness, and Signs of Intercessory Power of the Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Most Rev. Richard Stika, Bishop of Knoxville, speaks during the First Session of the Tribunal of the Inquiry That Will Examine the Life, Virtues, Offering of Life, Reputation of Holiness, and Signs of Intercessory Power of the Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In the lawsuit, Arnone alleged Sweeney used his position as a Catholic leader to coerce and control a sexual relationship from her over several weeks in 2000 after he oversaw her conversion to Catholicism. The lawsuit claimed Sweeney gave Arnone thousands of dollars to stop a foreclosure on her home and paid for a pilgrimage trip to Italy for her. Arnone also told the priest about the relationship troubles she was having with her then-husband, the lawsuit states.

Sweeney told Arnone he had sex with other men and women, according to the lawsuit, although Sweeney later told the diocese those stories were lies.

Arnone’s lawyers argued the relationship with Sweeney hurt Arnone’s ability to save her marriage, and in June 2004, she got divorced. Around that time, Arnone went to the church to confess her sin of having sexual relations with a priest. According to court filings from Arnone’s lawyers, the priest heard Arnone’s confession of her relationship with him and absolved her of the sin.

In 2005, Arnone met with Joseph Kurtz, then-bishop of Knoxville and now archbishop of Louisville, to report the incidents with Sweeney, both parties agree in court filings. Sweeney admitted to the actions the next day but no action was taken against him because there were no other reports that Sweeney had violated his vows, according to court filings from the diocese, and the priest told his superiors he was suffering from a “difficult episode” of depression at the time.

In a statement to the court, Kurtz said the situation made it unclear whether sexual exploitation occurred or whether the alleged abuse occurred during a time of pastoral care, which would have violated church policy.

Lawyers for Arnone argued the diocese knew Sweeney was unfit for ministry when the alleged abuse occurred, though the diocese argued it was not aware of Sweeney’s medical history or that he was taking the maximum dosage of two antidepressants until the priest disclosed the information to Kurtz in a 2004 email, which was included in court filings.

In a separate 2005 email to Kurtz, which was attached to Kurtz’s statement to the court, Sweeney wrote large sections of his memory from the time are missing or foggy.

According to the diocese, Arnone told Kurtz during their 2005 meeting that she did not want to hurt Sweeney’s ability to remain a priest but wanted him to receive help. Sweeney passed a psychological examination and continued in therapy for several years, according to court filings.

The diocese argued the 2005 meeting was the first time a complaint of potential abuse was leveled against Sweeney, which Arnone has questioned.

Freshly upset by news reports out of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania in 2019, Arnone spoke with Stika and other diocesan leaders several times to discuss the allegations. Leaders from the diocese reviewed the allegations and, according to court filings from the church, determined the diocese handled the situation properly in 2005. Stika told Arnone that Sweeney would write her a letter of apology, according to Stika’s statement to the court.

But in March 2019, Sweeney sent Arnone a letter saying he would “unleash my attorneys” on her and that “if you continue on the path of destruction, you will leave me no choice.” The diocese said it did not authorize the letter and would not have approved it, according to court filings.

Arnone filed her lawsuit almost a year later, on March 5, 2020.

Six days after the lawsuit was filed, Sweeney broke diocesan policy by not getting church approval before speaking publicly about pending litigation and sent a letter to members of all three parishes he served at the time, according to court filings from the diocese.

In that March 2020 letter to parishioners, a copy of which was obtained by the Times Free Press, Sweeney named Arnone and said her description of what happened is “pure fantasy” and that the two “never had more than a normal friendly relationship.” Sweeney accused her of using her imagination to create the lawsuit from a relationship among consenting adults. He described Arnone as “hysterical” about the incident and said his actions were related to his depression, which kept him from thinking rationally.

“When the media starts reporting on the lawsuit, they will concentrate on the most lascivious portions,” Sweeney wrote to his parishioners. “I want you to know that the only part of the lawsuit that is true concerns the three or four times we were physically intimate. All the rest is false.”

More than four months after the lawsuit was filed, Roane County News ran a short story on the case.

In his letter, Sweeney said he wanted to sue Arnone for defamation but “Tennessee law prevents me from defending myself.”

Arnone denied many of the claims in the letter as factually wrong or defamatory.

The Diocese of Knoxville argued in court filings that the statute of limitations, typically one year, had passed for suing Sweeney for alleged sexual exploitation.

“Fr. Sweeney has been and is a dedicated priest with an excellent reputation as a pastor. He is one of the most respected priests in the diocese,” the church said in its filings.

Stika, in a statement to the court, said Kurtz handled the 2005 report of misconduct against Sweeney correctly and Sweeney had “served 14 years as an exemplary priest, and that it would be both unfair and unnecessary to punish him any further.”

In its statement to the Times Free Press, the diocese said it supports Sweeney’s continued work in the church. Sweeney remains in ministry at Blessed Sacrament Church in Harriman, Saint Ann Church in Lancing and Saint Christopher in Jamestown, the three Tennessee parishes that received Sweeney’s March 2020 letter about the lawsuit.

Gary Smith, a Memphis-based lawyer specializing in sexual abuse cases who represented Arnone in the case, said negotiations for the settlement were conducted in good faith by both sides.

Susan Vance, founder of the Tennessee chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the settlement represented a victory for a survivor seeking the truth.

“Celeste Arnone is like so many victims,” Vance said. “They attempt to go to the church to get the truth and they do not get it and therefore have no other alternative but to sue to try and get discovery to find out the truth about what has happened. Not many victims can withstand that kind of pressure because the church is ruthless.”

In June, Pope Francis updated Vatican law to acknowledge that adults can be victims of sexual abuse and that bishops can be removed for failing to report possible sex crimes to church superiors. The updated law removes discretion from bishops in handling cases and will go into effect in December, according to The Associated Press.

Arnone said in a statement the pope’s move recognizes the abuse of power that can occur when clergy abuse adults.

“It is also spiritual exploitation and abuse, as the victim often begins to question and doubt the spiritual truths she/he once believed,” she said in a statement. “The clergy have innate power cultivated by a sense of their superior positions over others. I call it a deference given automatically to clergy as spiritual leaders.”

The case marks the second sexual abuse case the diocese has faced in less than two years.

In July 2019, Monsignor Francis Xavier Mankel, a founding priest of the Diocese of Knoxville who served in top positions throughout Tennessee for more than 50 years, was accused of sexual abuse of an altar boy, along with Bishop Anthony O’Connell and Michael Lovelace, who at the time was employed as a music teacher in two Catholic schools in Tennessee.

A settlement in that case, which alleged multiple instances of abuse between 1991 and 1995, was announced in January 2020. Documents related to the allegation also suggested the diocese may have known about those allegations for almost a year before suspending an accused employee who was having regular contact with children.

The settlement contained a non-disparagement agreement for the survivor. At the time, Vance argued the clause violated the Catholic Church’s 2002 charter on addressing abuse, which states dioceses are “not to enter into settlements which bind the parties to confidentiality.”

Arnone’s settlement did not include a non-disparagement or nondisclosure clause. She said in a statement being able to speak freely was important to her so other victims of abuse can come forward and so people within the faith realize how damaging clergy abuse can be.

“People want a tidy, feel-good church, one where they can come once or twice a week and go home with a good feeling,” Arnone said in a statement. “They do not want to find out bad things about clergy which make that feel-good positive attitude vanish. They don’t want to confront it and make it right. This is what advocates for clergy abuse victims have found for decades — a complacent people who will not believe a victim but will make every excuse for their priests. They will automatically believe that this can’t happen in their backyard.”

In 2018, Pope Francis updated church law to, among other things, explicitly state bishops and other church leaders must comply with civil and church investigations and interference with such actions, through deliberate action or omission, could lead to formal punishment.

In the past two months, Vance filed complaints with the Vatican against the Knoxville diocese on the grounds of interference with both recent abuse cases involving the diocese.

The complaints allege the threatening letter from Sweeney to Arnone, the letter from Sweeney to his three congregations and the alleged failure to investigate the 2004 complaint against Sweeney or to notify Arnone about the complaint amounted, in part, to diocesan interference.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.