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Former West Newton priest accused of sex abuse was supportive of parishioners

Stephen Huba
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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.

On Sept. 21, Holy Family Catholic Church in West Newton became a parish without a pastor.

Members of the large parish weren’t quite sure why the Rev. John Thomas Sweeney was no longer there. Some thought he had retired — he was, at 74, at the normal retirement age for Catholic priests. Others thought that he was taking a medical leave.

But, as disclosed by the Diocese of Greensburg on Monday, the real reason for Sweeney’s abrupt departure was an allegation of sexual abuse dating back 25 years from his time at St. Margaret Mary parish in Lower Burrell.

To a person, parishioners at Holy Family, Sweeney’s last pastoral assignment, said they were shocked at the allegations. They described him as an attentive pastor who served the congregation faithfully for eight years, until his removal in September.

They remember him as a man who enjoyed photography, tinkering with mechanical things in his basement workshop and eating at Gary’s Chuck Wagon in downtown West Newton.

Barbara Sleith of West Newton said she worked with Sweeney as an officer of the Confraternity of Christian Mothers, a lay organization that promotes the Christian education of children.

“He provided spiritual support and a sounding board for us to express different activities,” she said. “He was our spiritual director. Anything we would do, he would have to approve of.”

The Holy Family chapter marked its 50th anniversary in 2014 with a special Mass celebrated by Sweeney and the Rev. Angelus Shaughnessy, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Archconfraternity of Christian Mothers.

Shaughnessy said he had never met Sweeney before that December Mass at Holy Family but “he was very gracious to me and kind.”

Sleith said she went to Sweeney for confession and found him to be “very lenient, very fair.”

As a preacher, he was succinct. “He would get to the point. He would not labor over things. He said, ‘If you can’t say it in 10 minutes, you don’t need to be bothered with it,’” she said.

Michalene Lovato, religious education director at Holy Family, worked closely with Sweeney over eight years. He offered guidance as teachers held Christmas pageant rehearsals, developed curricula and prepared children for participation in the sacraments, she said.

“As a pastor dealing with our children, he was tremendous. The children loved him, and he loved them,” Lovato said. “If you talk with any of the children or their families, they would emphasize what I’m saying. He was very good and very supportive of everything that the catechists and I did for the children.”

Lovato said she has the “highest regard” for Sweeney, whom she described as a “good man and a good shepherd.”

“I enjoyed working with him because he was someone that you could easily work with. You could give your opinions, and he would listen and you would come to a consensus,” she said.

Lovato said Sweeney’s departure from Holy Family did not come as a total surprise, but it left parishioners wondering nonetheless.

“When they made him go on a leave, we did not think anything of it because he was nearing retirement age anyway,” she said. “His health had not been the best. He was not the kind of person who complained.”

Sweeney was born Oct. 30, 1942, in Uniontown. He graduated from St. Vincent College/Seminary in 1969 and was ordained a priest on May 9, 1970, at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral by Bishop William G. Connare, according to diocesan records.

His career took him from Holy Family Parish in Latrobe and Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg, where he served as assistant pastor, to his first assignment as pastor at the former St. Hedwig Parish in Smock, Fayette County.

He went on to be pastor at St. Mary Parish in Freeport, Armstrong County (1982-85), St. Margaret Mary Parish in Lower Burrell (1985-98), and St. James the Greater Parish in Apollo, Armstrong County (1998-2008).

An ad in the Catholic Accent taken out by the Holy Name Society of Holy Family Parish in 2015 congratulated Sweeney on the 45th anniversary of his ordination.

It was his time at St. Margaret Mary in the early ’90s that gave rise to suspicions of sexual abuse involving a fourth-grader at the parish school. The student, now 35, did not report the abuse until 2016. Lower Burrell police referred the case to PA ChildLine and the state attorney general’s office, which announced a charge of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse against Sweeney on Monday.

When the diocese learned of the abuse allegation on Sept. 20, 2016, it removed Sweeney from Holy Family Parish and placed him on administrative leave effective Sept. 21, diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt said. His priestly faculties were suspended, and he was prohibited from presenting himself as a priest or having unsupervised contact with minors. By the end of the year, Sweeney had retired to the Bishop Connare Center.

This was the first time the diocese had received a sexual abuse complaint concerning Sweeney, according to a story in the July 27 issue of the Catholic Accent.

A waitress at Gary’s Chuck Wagon said she used to wait on Sweeney when he came in with groups of parishioners and described him as “a nice person.”

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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