Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed criminal charges against a Catholic priest on Monday, July 24, 2017, accusing Reverend John T. Sweeney of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old student at St. Margaret Mary School in Lower Burrell. Sweeney, a resident of Greensburg, has been arrested and charged with a first-degree felony, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, according to an Office of Attorney General press release.
State Grand Jury Seeks Out Abusive Priests
75-year-old Sweeney is accused of using his power and position of authority to force a 4th grader into performing oral sex. “Children are targeted by predators because they are vulnerable,” Attorney General Shapiro told reporters at a recent press conference. “It often takes victims of child sexual abuse years or decades to come forward.”
The survivor, now 35-years-old, is being referred to as J.K. in order to preserve his privacy. J.K. was abused between 1991 and 1992, after being sent to Reverend Sweeney’s office for discipline. In the course of their investigation, a state-convened grand jury found that Sweeney had exploited his role as disciplinarian to force J.K. to perform oral sex in a conference room. After the assault, the priest’s secretary brought J.K. milk and cookies, according to testimony.
Survivor Disclosed After Watching Spotlight
More than 25 years would pass, however, before J.K. felt ready to disclose the abuse he had suffered. He was terrified of telling his parents, who held “great affection” for Sweeney, a close family friend. It was the movie Spotlight, which focused on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston, that inspired J.K. to step forward, disclosing the assault first to a friend and then to his relative, a United States Marshal. Spotlight, J.K. said in his testimony, “made [him] feel compelled to act out of concern that Sweeney could still be harming other children.”
Reverend Sweeney continued on as a priest for another 16 years after the alleged sexual abuse of J.K. During his career, the man worked as a Pastor and Associate Pastor at seven churches in Western Pennsylvania:
- Holy Family Church, Latrobe
- Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Greensburg
- St. Hedwig Church, Smock
- St. Mary, Freeport
- St. Margaret Mary, Lower Burrell
- St. James Parish, Apollo
- Holy Family Parish, West Newton
Sweeney was in regular contact with children throughout his time in the clergy. Whether or not he committed additional sexual offenses is currently unknown, although one of J.K.’s oldest friends, J.F., remembers a troubling experience in which he was made to undress, down to his underwear, in front of Sweeney. Both J.F. and J.K. fear that Sweeney has left other victims in Pennsylvania.
Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse
On July 24, 2017, Reverend John T. Sweeney was arrested and charged with “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.” “Deviate” in this context refers to a class of sexual offenses that do not involve the vagina, covering in contrast instances of penetration per os or per anus – with the mouth or with the anus.
Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Criminal Code prohibits all “deviate” sexual intercourse committed through force, compulsion or the threat of force. Similarly, the law lays out a blanket ban on vaginal and oral penetration involving minors below the age of 16 when the perpetrator is at least 20 years of age (and the two are not married to one another). A similar charge, “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child,” applies to cases in which the victim is 13 years old or younger. All of these crimes are considered first-degree felonies. Penalties range from 20 years to life in prison. If convicted, it is highly likely that Reverend Sweeney will spend the rest of his life in jail.
Pennsylvania’s Hunt For Clergy Sex Abusers
The criminal charge was recommended in late-July by the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, a panel of 23 residents, selected at random from counties in Western Pennsylvania, who have been selected to investigate potential crimes for a period of 18 months. The Grand Jury’s 40th instantiation has been directed by Attorney General Shapiro to focus its efforts on sexual abuse in the clergy.
The 23-member panel has called on lawmakers to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations on crimes with child victims, a law that can prevent criminal charges from being filed after time has passed.
J.K. now serves in the US Coast Guard. At a press conference to announce the charges, Attorney General Shapiro had this to say, “He is a hero for his service, 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.”