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Former Greensburg diocese priest sentenced to prison for molesting Catholic school boy

Rich Cholodofsky
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The victim, Josh, speaks at a news conference about former Catholic priest John Sweeney pleading guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of indecent assault at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro described the sexual abuse that was forced on Josh as a 10 year-old-student at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School.
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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.
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Former Rev. John Thomas Sweeney

A disgraced “predator priest” formerly with the Greensburg diocese finally apologized publicly for molesting a Catholic school boy in the early 1990s. 

“I am so, so sorry for what I did,” the Rev. John Thomas Sweeney, 75, told the victim’s mother and brother inside a Westmoreland County courtroom Friday before being sentenced to 1112months to five years in prison. 

Common Pleas Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio refused a request from Sweeney’s attorney to allow his client to report to prison on his own next week. Instead, sheriff’s deputies immediately took Sweeney into custody. Sweeney will be required to register as a sex offender for the next decade once he is released from prison. 

The judge called Sweeney’s actions a “vile offense” and said his subsequent freedom for the last 27 years as the victim struggled was over. 

“A 10-year-old boy was punished in a way that will affect him for the rest of his life,” Bilik-DeFazio said. 

The victim, who has identified himself publicly only as Josh, is serving in the Coast Guard in the South Pacific. His brother read a letter the victim wrote to the court. 

“All he has proven is that the Catholic church is a cult and all of its followers are complicit accomplices in its vast amount of crimes,” the victim wrote. “As long as the Catholic church is operational, there will be more victims.” 

Sweeney pleaded guilty in July to one 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 in Lower Burrell 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 allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser, misdemeanor offense, as part of the plea deal. 

“The people of the Diocese of Greensburg also pray for the person who courageously came forward and did the right thing by reporting this abuse, and for all those who have been hurt by sexual abuse in the past,” diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt said in a statement. 

Sweeney is one of more than 300 priests identified as sexual predators in a statewide grand jury report, released in August after a two-year investigation into clergy sex abuse in six Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania dating back 70 years. 

Criminal charges against Sweeney were filed a year before the report was publicly released. His victim reported the abuse in 2016 after watching “Spotlight,” the Academy Award-winning movie about sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. 

On Sept, 21, 2016, the Greensburg diocese said it revoked Sweeney’s priestly faculties and barred him from publicly presenting himself as a priest. The process to permanently remove Sweeney from the priesthood has started, the diocese said. 

In addition to his own apology, Sweeney was supported in court by James Kelley, a retired Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge and former Westmoreland County commissioner and state senator. 

He called the priest a friend and said he should not be sent to prison. 

“He was the perfect priest, warm, outgoing and always asked about your family,” Kelley said. 

Sweeney last 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. 

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. 

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