Arson blamed for Oregon church fire; suspect arrested

Angela Hedrick, a public relations officer with the Salem Police Department, confirmed with CNA that the fire was caused by arson and that Sweeten is currently being detained in Marion County Jail.

According to the official statement, Billy James Sweeten was arrested after being investigated by arson detectives from the Salem Police Felony Crimes Unit “due to suspicious circumstances of the fire.”

First-degree arson charges have been filed against Sweeten. In Oregon, first-degree arson is considered a very serious crime.

According to Hedrick’s interview with CNA, she was unable to elaborate on Sweeten’s motivations for igniting the fire because of county policy. According to her, the local district attorney is now handling the case.

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Marion County’s Deputy District Attorney Brendan Murphy said he could not discuss the case because of Oregon law.

In the words of the Salem Reporter, Sweeten “has a lengthy criminal history with convictions dating back to 1994.”

According to the Salem Reporter, he was just arrested on August 24 for criminal mischief and unlawful entry into a motor vehicle. He was supposed to be arraigned on August 28 but he didn’t show up.

According to the Salem Reporter, Sweeten had previously been accused with arson for setting fire to a woman’s house in 2021, but the charges were dropped as part of a plea deal.

At least 300 people attend Mass in the church’s ruins.

More than 300 parishioners arrived for Mass in the parking lot the day of the fire, according to Douglas Markwell, communications director for the Archdiocese of Portland, who spoke to CNA. Alexander Sample, Archbishop of Portland, presided at the service.

(More of the story is below.)

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“In his homily,” Markwell added, “the archbishop expressed his joy at seeing the outpouring of support from the community.” The structure may have been destroyed, he told the huddled masses, but “the Church is her people, and we are intact and thriving.”

Markwell forwarded a link to the Archdiocese of Portland’s St. Joseph Fire Relief Fund.

CNA’s Peter Pinedo is based in Washington, DC. Peter is a former employee of Texas Right to Life and a graduate of Franciscan University. In the U.S. Army Reserve, he holds the rank of first lieutenant.

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