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Valley News Dispatch

Former Lower Burrell priest charged with sexual abuse

| Monday, July 24, 2017, 8:18 a.m.

A former pastor at St. Margaret Mary Church in Lower Burrell is charged with sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.

The state Attorney General's office on Monday charged the Rev. John Thomas Sweeney, 74, of Greensburg, with one count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. According to a state grand jury report, Sweeney allegedly sexually assaulted the boy sometime between September 1991 and June 1992.

Court documents state that the alleged victim, now 35, didn't report the abuse until 2016, after he watched a feature film whose subject is sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

According to the man's testimony before the grand jury, he was called into Sweeney's office at St. Margaret Mary after misbehaving on a school bus when he was a fourth-grade student at the church's school.

The man told investigators Sweeney forced him to perform a sex act and warned him that he would get into trouble if he told anyone about the incident. The alleged victim also told investigators that Sweeney's secretary, now deceased, brought the victim milk and cookies immediately after the assault.

“The grand jury learned that this was a vulnerable child whose parents sent him to St. Margaret Mary's in hopes that he would get a better education,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. “It is no surprise that the victim kept this secret for so long.”

The alleged victim and a relative contacted police after he saw the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” a drama about the Boston Globe revealing clergy sexual abuse there. Lower Burrell police referred the case to ChildLine and to the attorney general's office.

Although the grand jury concluded that Sweeney's alleged actions also supported charges of indecent assault and corrupting the morals of a minor, the statute of limitations for those charges expired before the incident was reported to police.

Shapiro said the 37th grand jury investigating child abuse within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese called for the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children to be abolished.

He supported that proposal Monday.

“I believe it is time to reform these arbitrary time frames so we can seek justice for all of our children,” Shapiro said at a news conference. “This victim, all victims, are entitled to justice.”

The Greensburg Diocese said Sweeney's “priestly faculties” were suspended, and he was placed on administrative leave starting Sept. 21, 2016, pending an investigation by civil authorities. That was one day after the diocese was informed of the investigation.

In addition to being suspended, Sweeney was prohibited from presenting himself as a priest in public, and his residence was transferred to the retired priest facilities at The Bishop Connare Center, the diocese said. At the time, the diocese required Sweeney to “avoid any unsupervised contact with minors.”

The statement said Sweeney retired Dec. 31, 2016.

The diocese said it didn't publicize the suspension at the request of law enforcement.

A church investigation will be done after the criminal case ends.

In a statement, The Diocese of Greensburg said, in part, “it takes the protection of all children, young people and vulnerable adults seriously.

“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 and the appropriate district attorney.”

District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec imposed a $50,000 unsecured bond for Sweeney pending an Aug. 8 preliminary hearing. Yakopec ordered Sweeney to have no contact with children or witnesses in the case.

Sweeney's attorney, Francis R. Murrman, said Sweeney will plead not guilty to the charges.

“He hasn't had a chance to defend himself yet,” Murrman said.

If convicted, Sweeney could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a possible fine of $25,000.

According to Shapiro, the alleged victim is in the U.S. Coast Guard. Shapiro said the victim is a hero not only for his service, but also for coming forward.

“The victim in this case is a remarkable young man,” Shapiro said.

Joy Gezo, a Lower Burrell resident who attended the news conference, said that her son was baptized by Sweeney in 1990.

She described Sweeney as a “nice guy” and said she never had an inkling such a thing might happen.

“I was disappointed, to say the least,” Gezo said.

Gezo's husband, Larry, was also taken aback by the news. He said Sweeney was “super” and “always nice.”

“I'd never have thought that anything like this would happen,” Gezo said.

Despite the allegations, a few St. Margaret Mary parishioners stood behind the accused priest. Longtime church member Tom Thimons knew Sweeney personally and said he is a “good man.”

“He always has been a good guy, and I'm sure he still is,” Thimons, 70, of Allegheny Township, 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.”

Parishioner Gina Coulson said she doesn't believe the allegations. She also knew Sweeney and said he once helped her out when she was in trouble.

“I'm still shocked,” the 54-year-old Lower Burrell resident said. “My whole family knew him. None of us can believe it.

“It's going through my heart that it's not true. I don't believe it.”

The attorney general's office encourages anyone with information on Sweeney or on other cases of possible abuse to call the its Clergy Abuse hotline at 1-888-538-8541.

Madasyn Czebiniak, Chuck Biedka and Brian C. Rittmeyer are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Czebiniak at 724-226-4702, mczebiniak@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaddyCzebsTrib. Reach Rittmeyer at 724-226-4701, brittmeyer@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer. Reach Biedka at 724-226-4711, cbiedka@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ChuckBiedka.

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.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro talks about the charges against former Lower Burrell priest at a press conference last July.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro talks about the charges against former Lower Burrell priest at a press conference last July.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro at a press conference in Lower Burrell on Monday to announced charges of child sex abuse against a former Catholic priest.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro at a press conference in Lower Burrell on Monday to announced charges of child sex abuse against a former Catholic priest.
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.
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