Woman claims she was molested by Boston priest who used exorcism as ruse

Father John Sweeney was laicized, but his alleged 'exorcism' victim says he's still a priest in New Mexico.
Image: Attorney Mitchell Garabedian
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian speaks at a news conference in Boston on Nov. 8, 2017.Bill Sikes / AP file

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By Corky Siemaszko

An Indiana woman claimed Tuesday that she was molested as a teenager nearly 20 years ago by a former Boston priest who told her he was performing an exorcism to try to rid her of the devil.

Nadine Tifft, who came forward to tell her story publicly for the first time Tuesday, said that after talking with other girls at that time, she believes Father John Sweeney used the same ruse to abuse other young women and that Cardinal Sean O’Malley protected the priest even after she complained to the Archdiocese of Boston.

“We were teenagers who trusted this priest who did exorcisms over us as if we were possessed and then would use that forum to molest us,” Tifft said at a press conference arranged by her Boston-based lawyer Mitchell Garabedian.

She came forward to tell her story in hopes that Sweeney’s name would be included, along with seven others Garabedian named in the press conference, on a list of priests accused of abuse on the archdiocese’s website.

Tifft, who was 17 when Sweeney allegedly abused her in 2000, made a complaint to the archdiocese about nine years ago and was paid a settlement in 2018, said Garabedian, who did not disclose the terms.

Sweeney belonged to a priestly community at the time called the Franciscans of Primitive Observance, which was founded in Fall River, Massachusetts, and later invited to move to Boston by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, said Garabedian, who is best known as the lawyer whose efforts to prosecute pedophile priests were dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.”

Tifft, 37, said the assault happened in 2000 on her family’s Vermont property where Sweeney and other members of the community were holding a weekend religious retreat.

Sweeney would tell the teens to confess their sins, tell some of them they "were possessed,” and then perform exorcisms on them, she said.

“We were teenagers who trusted that priest,” she said.

Tifft said she realized she was not the only victim when she compared notes with the other girls who had been through the ritual at the time. She said they didn’t dare tell anybody at first.

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Then in 2002, a sympathetic priest, who Tifft described as a friend to her and her friends, had heard of the alleged molestation reported it to Sweeney’s superior, according to Tifft.

“[The superior] did nothing,” said Tifft. “Later our friend brought our complaints to the Archdiocese of Boston…Nothing was done and Fr. John Sweeney was protected by the archdiocese.”

Though allegations were reported as far back as 2002 against Sweeney, the archdiocese spokesman says that the church did take action, but not until in 2013, when Sweeney was laicized, meaning he was barred from performing priestly duties like saying Mass or hearing confessions. The archdiocese declined to comment further on Tifft’s allegations regarding the abuse she suffered and her allegations that the church initially did nothing when the abuse was reported.

But Tifft said she later learned that Sweeney had been sent to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in New Mexico, where she says he is assigned to a monastery.

“As a matter of fact, Father Sweeney is still a priest with the freedom to come and go from the monastery,” she said.

Tifft didn’t offer evidence of this and NBC News hasn’t verified that Sweeney is working in the New Mexico monastery. NBC News reached out to a spokesperson for the archdiocese in Santa Fe, but there was no immediate response.

The Franciscans of Primitive Observance, the group that Sweeney belonged to at the time of the alleged abuse, currently has eight members, a website and is headquartered in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, according to church officials. But there was no immediate way to reach the group for comment because they don’t have a phone number or email address.

Tifft said the abuse she endured took a personal toll on her. “My life fell apart and I literally lost everything,” she said.

Sweeney was also assigned to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in New Bedford, Mass, from 1998 into 2004, according to an archdiocese spokesman. In addition, he was assigned to parishes in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Tifft said what happened shook her faith, but she still continues to believe in God and remains a Roman Catholic.

“I try to attend Mass as often as possible,” she said.

At the same press conference, Garabedian also released the names of other Boston priests who he said have been “credibly” accused of sexual abuse but who were not included on the archdiocesan list of accused priests on its website.

They are the Rev. Gerard D. Barry, the Rev. Walter Casey, the Rev. Richard Donahue, the Rev. Charles McGahey, the Rev. Arnold E. Kelley, the Rev. Edward J. Mc Laughlin and Monsignor Charles J. Ring.

“It’s inconceivable to me that the archdiocese didn’t put their names on the website,” Garabedian said.

According to NBC Boston, the archdiocese said in a statement that it reports all allegations to law enforcement and “has been consistent with its policy about which priests it publicly lists online.” They added that allegations against five of the priests named above were made after their deaths, which is why they were not added to the list.

All but Donohue and Kelley are deceased, the archdiocesan spokesman said. Donahue is retired and the allegations against him are still being investigated, NBC Boston reported Cardinal Sean O’Malley as saying. According to the Lowell Sun, the Archdiocese of Boston reached a five-figure settlement in 2018 with an alleged victim of Kelley.