A former Roman Catholic priest who was posted at one point to a Mon Valley parish pleaded guilty Tuesday to a charge stemming from the sexual assault of a 10-year-old boy while he was at another parish in the Diocese of Greensburg.
Standing beside the victim who came forward with allegations against the longtime priest, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced during a news conference Tuesday 75-year-old John T. Sweeney pleaded guilty to a single count of indecent assault in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court.
“In his guilty plea today, Sweeney admitted and acknowledged to committing this crime inside the confines of the church,” Shapiro said.
Sweeney’s plea comes as Pennsylvanians await the release of a grand jury report detailing abuse by more than 300 priests in six of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses.
Shapiro’s office has been in litigation with dozens of individuals, mainly clergy members, seeking to block the publication of the report. On Friday, the state Supreme Court ordered the release of the report, with redactions, by Aug. 14.
State prosecutors charged Sweeney a year ago. Shapiro said a presentment by a statewide grand jury showed Sweeney’s victim was sent to Sweeney at some point during the 1991-92 school year. The boy was a fourth-grader at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic School in Lower Burrell Township, Westmoreland County, at the time.
Sweeney’s victim – whom Shapiro called only by the name Josh – told reporters he felt empowered to come forward after seeing the 2015 film “Spotlight,” which portrays a team of Boston Globe reporters’ investigation into widespread sexual abuse by priests.
Josh, who now serves in the U.S. Coast Guard, said he hoped others who’d been victims of similar crimes would come forward.
“You have nothing to lose. You’ll be a victim until the day you come forward,” he said. “The day you come out, you’ll be a victor. You are victorious today.”
Sweeney was first assigned as an associate pastor at a church in Latrobe. During his career with the Greensburg Diocese, he served at a number of parishes in addition to St. Margaret Mary.
Diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt said Sweeney was removed from Holy Family Parish in West Newton, where he’d served since late 2008, as soon as the diocese learned of the allegation.
“His priestly faculties were suspended and he was placed on administrative leave effective Sept. 21, 2016, pending an investigation by civil authorities,” Zufelt said in an email. “In addition, at that time he was prohibited from presenting himself as a priest in public. He was required to avoid any unsupervised contact with minors.”
Shapiro said Sweeney “used his authority and position as a Roman Catholic priest under the guise of a disciplinarian to gain access to the victim” and force the victim to perform a sex act in a conference room next to his office in the parish.
Afterward, Shapiro said, “Sweeney’s parish secretary brought the boy milk and cookies.”
The victim first went to Lower Burrell police, who later referred the case to Shapiro’s office at the advice of Westmoreland County prosecutors.
Sweeney’s plea, entered before Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio, was to a misdemeanor. He was initially charged with a felony.
“Father Sweeney, for a variety of reasons, wanted to conclude this matter,” said defense attorney Francis R. Murman. “The attorney general’s office and I engaged in extensive negotiations in order to arrive at a plea that was acceptable to all parties, including Father Sweeney.”
He also cited the age of his client, who’s “not in the best of health,” and called the case an “ordeal (that) was weighing very heavily on his physical health.”
Murman said his client will be sentenced within 90 days. The conviction will require Sweeney to register as a sex offender for 25 years.
“We made this decision today after careful and deliberate consultation with Josh,” Shapiro said.
“We thought that the most important thing that we could do was for Sweeney to take full and complete responsibility for his actions.”