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Western Pennsylvania Catholics, victims react to latest abuse arrest

Stephen Huba
| Monday, July 24, 2017, 5:33 p.m.
Former Catholic priest John Thomas Sweeney, 74, enters District Judge Cheryl Peck-Yakopec’s office on Monday July 24, 2017, to be arraigned on charges of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in 1991 and 1992.
Louis B. Ruediger| Tribune-Review
Former Catholic priest John Thomas Sweeney, 74, enters District Judge Cheryl Peck-Yakopec’s office on Monday July 24, 2017, to be arraigned on charges of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in 1991 and 1992.
The Rev. John Thomas Sweeney, 74, is escorted to Dist Court Justice Cheryl Peck-Yakopec’s office by Special Agents Kelly Roberts and Rege Kelly.Monday July 24, 2017.
The Rev. John Thomas Sweeney, 74, is escorted to Dist Court Justice Cheryl Peck-Yakopec’s office by Special Agents Kelly Roberts and Rege Kelly.Monday July 24, 2017.
Former Catholic priest John Thomas Sweeney, 74, is escorted to District Judge Cheryl Peck-Yakopec’s office by state Attorney General's Office Agents Kelly Roberts and Rege Kelly on Monday, July 24, 2017.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Former Catholic priest John Thomas Sweeney, 74, is escorted to District Judge Cheryl Peck-Yakopec’s office by state Attorney General's Office Agents Kelly Roberts and Rege Kelly on Monday, July 24, 2017.

Area Catholics and ex-Catholics who testified before a state grand jury that met in 2014 to investigate Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse reacted Monday to the news of another abuse allegation with a mixture of relief and anger.

“Being one of those people who came forward, this is a very proud day for me,” said Shaun Dougherty, 47, formerly of Johnstown. “If this arrest came as a result of anything I testified to … that's why I came forward.”

Dougherty, who owns a restaurant in New York City and no longer is Catholic, said he was abused by the Rev. George Koharchik at St. Clement Church in the early 1980s.

“I don't know that I ever had faith. I was 10 years old when this happened,” he said.

Dougherty was one of six alleged victims of Koharchik's whose names were redacted from a 2016 Pennsylvania attorney general's report on clergy sexual abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The 147-page report outlined a history of abuse and cover-ups under the episcopate of James Hogan and Joseph Adamec, former Altoona-Johnstown bishops. It detailed the alleged abuse of hundreds of minors by more than 50 priests in the eight-county diocese.

The special grand jury that issued the report has since widened its investigation to six dioceses in Pennsylvania, including Greensburg.

Officials said Monday that the criminal charge against the Rev. John T. Sweeney, a retired priest of the Diocese of Greensburg, was the result of the attorney general's ongoing investigation.

Although not familiar with the Sweeney case, Dougherty said clergy sexual abuse is a “huge problem” in Pennsylvania and needs to be addressed. Koharchik was removed from active ministry in 2012 and continues to live in the Johnstown area.

John Nesbella, 55, of Lilly, Cambria County, said continuing allegations, year after year, are driving people away from the church. A former priest, he now is a lay member of the Polish National Catholic Church.

“I had to leave and make a clean start because I know all those guys up there standing at the altar. I know what they know,” he said. “If they really cared for their church, they'd do something to stop this.”

Nesbella's allegations against the Rev. Martin Brady, a Franciscan friar, are detailed in the 2016 grand jury report, which refers to him only as “Brady Victim.” He said the abuse occurred while he attended Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg in the late 1970s.

Despite the abuse, Nesbella attended seminary at St. Vincent College in the 1990s and was ordained to the priesthood in 2003. He said Adamec removed him from Prince of Peace Parish in Northern Cambria after learning that Nesbella intended to sue the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown over the abuse allegations.

“One day I was there, the next day I was gone because I hired a lawyer to represent me,” he said. “I really cared about the church and wanted to do something to clean it up.”

Brady died in 2003. Nesbella asked to be laicized — or removed as a member of Catholic clergy — and currently works as an engineer for an electronics company.

Bolivar resident Tom Venditti, founder of Faithful Catholics Against Pedophilia, or FCAP, said Monday's arrest shows that the problem of clergy sexual abuse extends beyond the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

“They're just scratching the surface,” he said. “We've just been waiting before it hit Greensburg and Pittsburgh.”

Venditti, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in Ligonier, said he founded FCAP to help victims and encourage them to stay in the Catholic Church.

“We don't give up on the church because we believe the church is a good, holy, child-friendly institution. What's happened is an aberration, it's a corruption. We're not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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