PHOENIX – A Roman Catholic priest responding to a break-in at his downtown Phoenix church grabbed a handgun that police say ended up in the burglar’s hands – and was then used to kill a fellow priest who tried to help.
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-caliber 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 first 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-defense 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.
Terra “was possibly thinking of both him and Father Kenny, in protecting them,” Keyes said. “But given his condition, he probably wasn’t thinking very clearly when he went for the gun.”
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 as a city dweller. 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.”
The Mother of Mercy Mission, where last week’s attack happened, is in a rough neighborhood near the state Capitol. Protective bars cover nearly every window, as well as the windows of most of nearby homes. At the same time, residents say the police presence is strong, in part because of the government offices.
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 Springs, 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 in the Illinois village of Cahokia, 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 they’re fair game.
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.
Johnny Shaw, pastor at St. John Baptist Church in Stanton, Tennessee, a rural town of about 430 people northeast of Memphis, said he keeps a gun in his pickup truck for protection when he drives to Nashville for his work as a state representative. But he doesn’t bring it into the church or when he’s working with the public, because he believes it would undermine the message of peace and restraint.
“I respect the church. It’s a place of hallowed ground,” he said. “It’s where we personally go to meet God ... I don’t think I need a gun in hallowed ground.”
An intruder beat Mary Shepard and another woman in a southern Illinois church where Shepard worked as a treasurer, leaving both for dead. She believes she could have thwarted that attack if she hadn’t been barred from carrying a gun in public. She waged a long legal fight that helped bring about an end to Illinois’ last-in-the-nation ban on concealed carry.
Shepard, 74, said the Phoenix priest is “still a man and a person who has a right to self-protection.” Her church hasn’t taken a position on guns in the building, but she said she would go to another church if guns were barred.
“I don’t see anything wrong with having a gun in church,” she said.