Tennessee abuse case settled after allegations 'one of the most respected priests' exploited adult converting to Catholicism

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville has settled an abuse lawsuit against "one of the most respected priests in the diocese" who was accused of sexually exploiting an adult woman he converted to the Catholic faith in 2000.

In the lawsuit, Celeste Arnone accused the Rev. Michael Sweeney of sexual assault and exploitation, severe psychological distress, defamation, the loss of faith in God and the loss of her marriage. She also accused the diocese of negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress for its handling of her allegations after they were first reported.

"I hope my case will help survivors to, first of all, realize that this is not your fault, even if you might think it is, and it may take years to realize what actually did happen to you," Arnone said in a statement to the Times Free Press.

The news comes as Pope Francis has moved to reform church law to recognize adults can be victims of sexual abuse from clergy or other church authorities where there is a power imbalance. And starting this month, Tennessee law will explicitly criminalize sexual contact between a person and a member of the clergy, as well as health care professionals, during the course of treatment or therapy because the victim is incapable of consent.

The diocese, which includes Catholic churches in Southeast Tennessee, told the Times Free Press it would not offer specific comment on the settlement related to an allegation from something that happened more than 20 years ago.

"Father Sweeney has been a good priest and a dedicated pastor in this diocese and he has the full support, trust, and confidence of Bishop [Richard] Stika," the diocese said in a statement. "Father Sweeney has confronted his personal issues and apologized for a mistake he made many years ago. Any inference that he is less of a person or a pastor in this regard is unfair and lacking in the core Christian values of contrition and forgiveness."

The settlement was financial and did not include any changes to church policy. The diocese, as well as Arnone, declined to make public the amount of the settlement.

In the lawsuit, Arnone alleged Sweeney used his position as a Catholic leader to coerce and control a sexual relationship from her over several weeks in 2000 after he oversaw her conversion to Catholicism. The lawsuit claimed Sweeney gave Arnone thousands of dollars to stop a foreclosure on her home and paid for a pilgrimage trip to Italy for her. Arnone also told the priest about the relationship troubles she was having with her then-husband, the lawsuit states.

Sweeney told Arnone he had sex with other men and women, according to the lawsuit, although Sweeney later told the diocese those stories were lies.

Arnone's lawyers argued the relationship with Sweeney hurt Arnone's ability to save her marriage, and in June 2004, she got divorced. Around that time, Arnone went to the church to confess her sin of having sexual relations with a priest. According to court filings from Arnone's lawyers, the priest heard Arnone's confession of her relationship with him and absolved her of the sin.

In 2005, Arnone met with Joseph Kurtz, then-bishop of Knoxville and now archbishop of Louisville, to report the incidents with Sweeney, both parties agree in court filings. Sweeney admitted to the actions the next day but no action was taken against him because there were no other reports that Sweeney had violated his vows, according to court filings from the diocese, and the priest told his superiors he was suffering from a "difficult episode" of depression at the time.

In a statement to the court, Kurtz said the situation made it unclear whether sexual exploitation occurred or whether the alleged abuse occurred during a time of pastoral care, which would have violated church policy.

Lawyers for Arnone argued the diocese knew Sweeney was unfit for ministry when the alleged abuse occurred, though the diocese argued it was not aware of Sweeney's medical history or that he was taking the maximum dosage of two antidepressants until the priest disclosed the information to Kurtz in a 2004 email, which was included in court filings.

In a separate 2005 email to Kurtz, which was attached to Kurtz's statement to the court, Sweeney wrote large sections of his memory from the time are missing or foggy.

According to the diocese, Arnone told Kurtz during their 2005 meeting that she did not want to hurt Sweeney's ability to remain a priest but wanted him to receive help. Sweeney passed a psychological examination and continued in therapy for several years, according to court filings.

The diocese argued the 2005 meeting was the first time a complaint of potential abuse was leveled against Sweeney, which Arnone has questioned.

Freshly upset by news reports out of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania in 2019, Arnone spoke with Stika and other diocesan leaders several times to discuss the allegations. Leaders from the diocese reviewed the allegations and, according to court filings from the church, determined the diocese handled the situation properly in 2005. Stika told Arnone that Sweeney would write her a letter of apology, according to Stika's statement to the court.

But in March 2019, Sweeney sent Arnone a letter saying he would "unleash my attorneys" on her and that "if you continue on the path of destruction, you will leave me no choice." The diocese said it did not authorize the letter and would not have approved it, according to court filings.

Arnone filed her lawsuit almost a year later, on March 5, 2020.

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