Deadly break-in at US church puts spotlight on issue of clergy carrying weapons

Brian Skoloff And Rachel Zoll / The Associated Press
June 17, 2014 03:29 PM

FILE - In this Thursday, June 12, 2014, file photo, Phoenix Chief of Police Daniel Garcia, right, pauses while speaking at a news conference as Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, left, listens at Phoenix Police Headquarters, in Phoenix, speaking about an attack that left a priest shot and killed and another injured at the Roman Catholic church the Mother of Mercy Mission. Gary Michael Moran, a homeless ex-convict, is being held on $1 million bond on suspicion of first-degree murder, burglary, and armed robbery, among other charges, police announced Monday, June 16. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX - A Roman Catholic priest responding to a break-in at his U.S. church grabbed a handgun that police say ended up in the burglar's hands and was used to kill a fellow priest.

The Diocese of Phoenix has no policy on priests carrying guns, but the deadly burglary raised questions about the wisdom of clergy possessing weapons, no matter how dangerous their mission.

The attack occurred after the Rev. Joseph Terra opened the kitchen door of the Mother of Mercy Mission rectory on the evening of June 11 to investigate noises in a courtyard. The intruder he found beat him with a metal rod, but the priest managed to retrieve a .357-calibre gun from his bedroom.

He was unable to fire the weapon before the attacker grabbed it and used it to fatally shoot Terra's colleague, 28-year-old Kenneth Walker, according to court records.

Terra is expected to make a full recovery after being beaten so badly that authorities initially doubted he would survive the night.

A 54-year-old homeless ex-convict named Gary Michael Moran has been arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder, burglary and armed robbery, among other charges.

Many American Catholic leaders have argued that church teaching compels them to advocate for greater limits on guns, but self-defence is also part of Catholic theology, and Catholics have different views of the issue.

Walker's relatives have mixed feelings about Terra having kept a gun in the rectory.

"On one hand, we feel that they should have a way to protect themselves. But on the other hand, we think about the fact that our brother was killed with it," Sasha Keyes, Walker's stepsister, said Tuesday in an interview.

The Rev. Richard Malloy, who worked with fellow Jesuits in the 1990s in Camden, New Jersey, when crack cocaine was ravaging the city, said he never carried a gun. One time, when Malloy was riding in a van and preaching through speakers attached to the roof, someone shot down the speakers. No one was hurt.

At the time, priests felt protected by their clergy collars, which a friend dubbed "the angel's bulletproof vest."

But concern about security at churches has grown in the last decade or so in the wake of several high-profile shootings, including a 2007 fatal shooting at New Life Church in Colorado. Many of the attacks were related to domestic violence, personal conflicts or robbery. In response, some congregations put armed guards at the doors during worship services.

Still, in states that allow concealed weapons, many congregations bar firearms.

Catholic priests face a special challenge when it comes to security. The church's shortage of clergy means many live alone, including some in downtown areas deserted at night.

"A pastor is no different than anyone else," said Chuck Chadwick, president of the National Organization for Church Security and Safety Management. "If I'm in a bad place, and my mission is there, I'd probably carry a gun. You can't have a universal policy for all pastors."

At tiny Living Water Church, just east of St. Louis, pastor Cory Respondek insists arming himself is a way to stop any threat to his 20-person congregation. What happened in Phoenix, he worries, reflects a cultural shift among criminals: Churches were once considered largely off-limits as targets, and many houses of worship left their doors unlocked. Now, he said, it looks like that has changed.

He generally doesn't carry the gun during Sunday services, although he believes some congregants are discreetly armed.

"Nobody wants to take a life, and no one wants to have to hurt someone. But if you're attacked and your church people are in danger of being hurt or killed, you have to react," he added.


Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed to this report. Skoloff reported from Phoenix. Zoll reported from New York.

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