Attorney General Shapiro Charges Western PA Priest with Sexual Abuse

July 24, 2017 | Topic: Criminal

HARRISBURG — Attorney General Josh Shapiro today announced criminal charges against a Catholic priest in Westmoreland County for a sexual assault committed against a 10-year-old boy.

Reverend John T. Sweeney, of Greensburg, was arrested this afternoon and charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, a first-degree felony. The charge against Sweeney was recommended by a Pennsylvania statewide investigating grand jury conducting a broader investigation of sexual abuse by priests, under the supervision of the Office of Attorney General.

Attorney General Shapiro announced Sweeney’s arrest at a news conference in Lower Burrell Township, Westmoreland County, near the St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic School where the victim was a 4th grade student when the sexual assault took place during the 1991-92 school year.

“Children are targeted by predators because they are vulnerable,” Attorney General Shapiro said at the news conference. “It often takes victims of child sexual abuse years or decades to come forward, because they struggle with shame, confusion, or fear.

“But once a victim finds the courage to come forward, law enforcement should take action,” the attorney general said. “For his crime, Sweeney now faces a serious felony charge for the sexual abuse of a child.”

According to the grand jury’s presentment, while in 4th grade, the victim 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 gain access to the victim and 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.

After Sweeney finished sexually assaulting the 10-year-old boy, Sweeney’s parish secretary brought the boy milk and cookies.

Last September, Special Agents of the Office of Attorney General learned the victim had come forward to Lower Burrell police with his allegation of abuse by Sweeney. Police referred the victim to the Office of Attorney General on the advice of the Westmoreland County District Attorney. Prosecutors brought this information to the grand jury, where the victim later testified.

According to the grand jury presentment, the victim was concerned that Sweeney could still be harming other children. The victim testified he kept his abuse secret his entire life to protect his parents, who he feared would blame themselves. During the intervening years, the victim grew up and entered the service, where he currently serves in the United States Coast Guard.

“He is a hero for his service,” Attorney General Shapiro said, “but today we know him as a hero for coming forward. He was motivated to come forward and tell the difficult truth about Sweeney because of his concern that other children could be harmed if Sweeney were not held accountable.”

Sweeney continued in ministry as a priest for approximately 16 years after abusing the victim and was in contact with children on a regular basis. Sweeney was assigned to various parishes during his tenure as a priest in the Diocese of Greenburg. Sweeney’s assignments:

Title Assignment Start
Associate Pastor Holy Family Church, Latrobe June 24, 1970
Associate Pastor Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Greensburg August 8, 1975
Pastor St. Hedwig Church, Smock May 22, 1980
Pastor St. Mary, Freeport February 16, 1982
Pastor St. Margaret Mary, Lower Burrell August 6, 1985
Pastor St. James Parish, Apollo July 7, 1998
Pastor Holy Family Parish, West Newton October 30, 2008

Attorney General 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.

“If anyone is aware of other incidents involving this man, or if you yourself were a victim, we urge you to come forward,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “We are committed to protecting and supporting all victims of sexual abuse. No one is above the law. Our prosecutors and investigators want to hear from you. We will pursue the facts without fear and without favor.”

Attorney General Shapiro said his office would have charged Sweeney with additional crimes, but the statute of limitation had expired on those charges. Shapiro noted that following the investigation of child sexual abuse within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, a statewide investigating grand jury called for the abolishment of the criminal statute of limitations for crimes against children.

“It is time to reform these arbitrary timeframes and to seek justice for our children,” Attorney General Shapiro concluded. “This victim, all victims, are entitled to justice.”

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