Attorney asks for mercy for former Lower Burrell ‘predator priest’
The lawyer for a disgraced Catholic Diocese of Greensburg priest who pleaded guilty to molesting a Lower Burrell school student a quarter-century ago pleaded for mercy for his client before a sentencing hearing next week.
In court documents filed Wednesday, defense attorney Fran Murrman asked for no jail time for the Rev. John Thomas Sweeney.
Murrman said Sweeney, 75, is mentally fragile and, through his impending banishment from the church, understands that he will “never escape the consequences of his action.”
Sweeney pleaded guilty in July to one felony count of indecent assault in connection with what investigators said was a sexual assault against a 10-year-old boy who attended St. Margaret Mary Church school between September 1991 and June 1992.
Prosecutors said Sweeney forced the fourth-grader to perform sex acts in a conference room next to his office at the church.
Sweeney had ordered the boy to the room to be disciplined for being disruptive on a school bus, investigators said.
Afterward, a church secretary brought the boy milk and cookies, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors originally charged Sweeney with a felony count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, but to facilitate a guilty plea, allowed him to plea guilty to a lesser, misdemeanor offense.
State prosecutors said Sweeney could receive up to five years in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 21 by Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio.
In the sentencing memorandum submitted by Murrman, which includes letters of support from four friends and an Ohio priest, Sweeney is described as an elderly man in poor health who has already lost his place at the diocese’s retirement home and has been barred from worshipping in any church.
Murrman said Sweeney has suffered the punishment of mental anguish.
“He carries the anguish through the day and the grief accompanies him to bed. The anguish does not provide any reprieve as it awakens him at night and disturbs his ability to sleep,” Murrman wrote.
Sweeney is one of more than 300 priests identified as sexual predators in a statewide grand jury investigation launched by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro that explored misconduct in several Catholic dioceses dating back 70 years.
The criminal charges against Sweeney were filed a year before the report was publicly released.
Sweeney retired as an active pastor in 2016, when he served at Holy Family Parish in West Newton.
He previously worked as a priest at seven parishes in the Greensburg diocese, which covers Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland counties.
According to Shapiro’s office, Sweeney served as an associate pastor at Holy Family Church in Latrobe starting in 1970 and moved to Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg in the same position in 1975.
Sweeney served as a pastor at St. Hedwig Church in Smock, Fayette County, in 1980 until he moved to St. Mary in Freeport, in 1982. He began his tenure at St. Margaret Mary in Lower Burrell in 1985. He moved to St. James Parish in Apollo in 1998. Sweeney started his last assignment in West Newton in 2008.
Sweeney’s victim — now in his 30s who identified himself as Josh and who serves in the Coast Guard — reported the abuse in 2016 after watching “Spotlight,” the Academy Award-winning movie about sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston.
“After seeing that film, I could relate to a lot of the characters or victims in that film and saw the impact they had on the community there,” he said this summer during a news conference at the courthouse in Greensburg, which also included Shapiro. “I knew it was an institutional problem and not just a one-time incident, so I decided to come forward at that point. I’m very glad that I did. I’m sorry that it has taken me this long.”
“There is no doubt that Father Sweeney is a predator priest,” Shapiro said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or [email protected]