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Parishioner arrested after church's final Mass

WINCHESTER -- In the first outright confrontation between Catholic clergy and parishioners opposed to church closings in the Archdiocese of Boston, police arrested a 69-year-old parishioner who refused to leave Immaculate Conception Church in Winchester yesterday after the pastor asked officers to remove him after the church's final Mass.

Winchester police physically removed parishioner Gene Sweeney from the church at about 7:30 p.m. and arrested him on a trespassing charge, Sergeant Peter MacDonnell said. Sweeney spent about two hours in the police station before being released on $40 bail, MacDonnell said.

In an interview outside the police station, Sweeney said that he refused requests by the pastor, the Rev. Thomas Foley, to leave the church after the church's final Mass, which was celebrated at 4:30 p.m.

"I realized that I was pretty much alone at the church and Father Foley said to me, 'Gene, what are you doing here?' " Sweeney said. "I said, 'Father, I am sitting here, obviously.' And he said, 'Well, you're going to have to leave, Gene.' "

"I said, 'Father, I am not going to leave,' and he said, 'Well, you're going to have to be arrested.' "

Archdiocesan officials, who have taken a hands-off approach to the growing number of church closing protests and occupations -- eight ordered closed by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley are now being occupied by protesters conducting round-the-clock prayer vigils -- said that Foley took the action on his own initiative and that the arrest did not mark a change in policy.

"This priest took the action in the circumstance that he thought was best," Ann Carter, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said last night. "This does not reflect a change in archdiocesan policy, and he did not take this action at the direction of the archdiocese."

Peter Borre, a spokesman for the Council of Parishes, an umbrella group that assists protesters trying to block church closings, called Sweeney's arrest a "major escalation" of the conflict over the archdiocesan plan to close more than 80 of its 357 parishes. Borre also said he was angry that Sweeney was not granted sanctuary under canon law.

"You would expect a pastor to know canon law," he said.

Attempts to reach Foley last night were unsuccessful. The church was closed and the door of the rectory was not answered late last night.

Carter said Foley was motivated by a concern for the 69-year-old Sweeney's safety and well-being and that the pastor did not realize Sweeney would be arrested.

"He had no sense that this would result in an arrest," she said.

Carter also said that Foley did not call police, but instead spoke with two off-duty Winchester officers who had attended the final Mass. Carter said the officers, as well as some of the other parishioners who had attended the final Mass and were on their way to a reception in the parish hall, tried to talk Sweeney into leaving.

Finally, Foley decided that he could not allow Sweeney to stay, Carter said.

"It was a beautiful and prayerful event at the parish yesterday, and in his heart he [Foley] could not allow one parishioner to disrupt the event, so he asked the police officers to remove the man," she said.

Sweeney said yesterday that although he had "no desire to be a martyr or anything," he wasn't going to be talked out of leaving. He said he requested sanctuary in the church when police arrived, but that his request was ignored.

"I said I am nonviolent and I am seeking sanctuary, and I told them it's illegal to be locked in a church or in any building and they ignored that," he said. "I didn't back down."

Sweeney said last night that he was physically removed from the church by four police officers, who aggravated an injured shoulder that he had surgery on 35 years ago.

"They cuffed me outside the church, they picked me up from where I was sitting and lugged me out," he said. "And when I got outside the church they said, 'Put your hands on the cruiser, put your hands back.' The way they took my arm, I started to scream at them, I said, 'My God I had a shoulder operation.' It didn't matter, they continued, and it hurt awful for a little while."

MacDonnell, the police sergeant, said last night that he was unaware of any injury Sweeney might have suffered during the arrest. He said the trespassing charge is a misdemeanor and that Sweeney would receive a summons to appear in Woburn District Court later this month.

Ralph Ranalli can be reached at

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