World & Nation

Phoenix priest says he forgives man accused in church attack

Father Joseph Terra
Father Joseph Terra of Phoenix said, “I have forgiven him,” when asked about the man who attacked the Mater Misericordiae Mission rectory. Another priest was killed.
(Cindy Carcamo / Los Angeles Times)

People clapped, gasped and cried when a man pushed Father Joseph Terra into the room full of parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena on Monday.

Still in a wheelchair after being wounded last week during a break-in at Mater Misericordiae Mission that left a fellow priest dead, Terra didn’t move much. His hands were heavily bandaged, his eyes were bruised and swollen, and the top of his head was marked by fresh scars and dried blood.

The 56-year-old struggled to smile as well-wishers lined up to whisper in his ear. When asked about the man who is accused of injuring him and of killing Father Kenneth Walker, 28, Terra spoke softly.

“I have forgiven him,” he said.


Police announced the arrest of Gary Michael Moran, 54, on suspicion of breaking into the rectory and attacking the priests in what appeared to be a burglary gone wrong.

Phoenix Police Chief Daniel V. Garcia described Moran as a “career criminal” who had just completed a five-year prison term in April for a 2005 burglary at a home in which he stabbed the homeowner with a knife.

After his release, Garcia said, Moran “immediately went back to business -- his business, criminal activity,” and lived on the streets, bouncing in and out of homeless shelters.

On the night of June 12, according to police, Moran broke into an enclosed courtyard at the rectory in a worn-down, working-class neighborhood surrounded by government buildings.


When Terra came to investigate, the intruder hit him several times, including in the head, with an iron rod, police said.

After Terra got away and retrieved a gun he kept in his nightstand -- a Colt Python .357 -- his finger was too injured to pull the trigger, he told police later, according to court records.

The attacker managed to take the gun from Terra, made the priest get on his hands and knees and give him money, and then used Terra’s gun to shoot Father Walker, who had come to investigate the commotion, police said.

Moran then stole a 2003 Mazda from the church, which he abandoned about four blocks away, police said. Terra said he was able to deliver last rites to Walker before he died.

Terra and Walker’s conservative order, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, was  created in 1988 in response to Vatican II reforms in the 1960s that modernized the Church, with the fraternity’s priests preferring to perform Mass in its “extraordinary form” -- that is, in Latin. Emphasis is placed on personal sacrifice in order to be closer to God.

Since the attack, the fraternity’s priests have spoken out for spiritual forgiveness, even for the seemingly unforgivable.

“There is always forgiveness. It’s important for us to remember the man who committed this act. … We should pray for him,” said fraternity member Father Carl Gismondi at St. Catherine’s, after a requiem Mass was held there for Walker. “The hardest part of Catholicism is to pray for those who persecute us.”

During Monday’s ceremony, priests spoke Latin, faced the altar rather than the congregation, and women wore mantillas, lace veils that were popular before Vatican II’s reforms, when women were required to have their heads covered.


“What would he say to his attacker?” Father Eric Flood told mourners in remarks made in English during the ceremony, referring to Walker. “Surely it’s the same advice he would give to us. ... Turn to God.”

Flood added that “heaven is still possible” for the attacker.

Police said DNA evidence connected Moran to the scene and to the stolen car. Police said a witness had also tipped off police that Moran had been “bragging about beating a priest and robbing him.”

When investigators tracked down Moran at a halfway house, at first he told investigators he did not remember what happened, according to court records, but then said he was attacked and that he shot one of the priests after he struggled for the gun.

Moran then stopped his statement, according to court records, which is when police decided to book him on eight charges, including murder.

It wasn’t immediately clear Monday if Moran had a lawyer.

On Monday afternoon, flowers, candles, notes and a picture of Walker were left outside the front door of the Mater Misericordiae Mission.

One handwritten note said, “Father Kenneth Walker. Our prayers are with you. We will miss you greatly.”


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