Newark church assault highlights crisis of mentally ill, priests say

Toni Yates Image
Monday, April 25, 2016
Man charged with entering Newark church and assaulting priest
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Toni Yates is live in Newark with the story

NEWARK, New Jersey (WABC) -- A man is under arrest after police say he entered a church in Newark early Sunday morning and assaulted one of the priests.

Authorities say 33-year-old Shawn Swinton, a former student at the prep school, walked into St. Mary's Church and punched Father Edwin Leahy.

Parishoners and another priest helped police capture the suspect.

"People like this, who suffer, don't tend to take their medication," said Fr. Leahy, of the Benedictine Abbey of Newark. "So they are dangerous to themselves and to somebody else."

That's the first point Fr. Leahy wanted to make about the hostile encounter with Swinton, who left school as a teenager due to mental illness.

"He's had a history in his family of mental illness," Fr. Leahy said. "But the problem is getting him somewhere where he can be taken care of on an extended basis."

Priests say Swinton was agitated when walked into St. Mary's Church between Masses.

"He's usually polite," Fr. Philip Waters said. "It was totally different, but I think I recognized the fact that I do know he's mentally ill, and I'm sure he's on medications, and I'm sure it was just a case of being off his medications."

Swinton allegedly punched Fr. Leahy, then ran out of the church. Fr. Waters and a few parishioners followed.

"We got a couple of my church people, and we followed him to Broad Street," Fr. Waters said. "And a couple times he turned around and yelled at us, but we kept our distance. I had 911 on the line. It took all the way down to Broad Street before I found a cop."

Swinton, of East Orange, was taken into custody and charged with simple assault, but the priests say the real crisis is the lack of long-term care for the mentally ill who wander without steady help.

"If they're all on their own, how do you get them to take their medication?" Fr. Leahy said. "Somebody needs to care for these people in a way where they can be stabilized."

"He does need help, and he does not have any, I believe, family support," Fr. Waters added. "So in some cases, this is maybe the closest thing he's ever had to a family."