At a Phoenix Catholic church on June 11, 2014 Fr Kenneth Walker was murdered and Fr Joseph Terra brutally beaten by a man paroled from prison six weeks earlier.
“Jesus wept.” Those two words in the Gospel of Saint John (11:35) comprise the shortest sentence in all of Sacred Scripture. Upon the sudden death of their brother, Lazarus, his sisters, Martha and Mary, were consoled by many in their community. When they heard Jesus was coming, Martha went out to meet him while her sister Mary remained inside.
Martha engaged Jesus in a dialogue of faith in light of her brother’s death, but Mary challenged him with another kind of statement of faith: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). Jesus asked to be taken to Lazarus. He saw Mary weeping, along with many others who had come to console her. Then, “Jesus wept.”
I must write of the tragic death of one of my brothers, Father Kenneth Walker, a young man I have never even met. I must write of this because I have friends who knew him, and who know Father Joseph Terra who was seriously injured in the attack that took Father Walker’s life. Like Martha in the Gospel account, I, too, believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life. But like Mary, I, too, want to say in my grief, “Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died.” But I believe in my heart that Jesus was there, and upon this senseless scene of human brokenness and tragic loss, Jesus wept.
For some who were not there, however, this story has all the makings of dark journalism. Father Joseph Terra, age 56, who went to investigate noises in the church courtyard, was ambushed and brutally beaten with a tire iron. Father Kenneth Walker, 28 years old and ordained just two years ago, walked in on the scene and was murdered by the intruder.
The man arrested for the murder and assaults is 54-year-old Gary Michael Moran, paroled from prison just weeks earlier having been convicted in 2005 of home invasion, burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon. In that case, he had stabbed a man in the abdomen before being subdued. Four years before that, he was sentenced in another case involving weapons. Moran did not know any of his victims then or now. In 2005, he said that he was crazed on methamphetamine, and cited a long history of drug abuse and its usual desperation for money to feed itself.
And in what has suggestively become the darkest fodder for politicizing the news of this tragedy, the gun that was used to kill Father Kenneth Walker did not belong to the crazed killer. It belonged to Father Joseph Terra. As the dust settled upon this case, I had no doubt that one or both ends of a political and moral spectrum would take this up, take it out of its context, and abuse this aspect of the story ad nauseam into a cacophony of political correctness.
That would be neither fair nor just, and if this aspect of the story gathers steam into a post mortem controversy, I believe you should give it the attention it deserves – which is none whatsoever. Father Joseph Terra bears no blame whatsoever for this tragedy, and is in fact one of its victims.
THE DUTY OF DEFENSE
Already, the mere fact that Father Joseph Terra owned a gun is littering the online world with suggestive overtones of disdain. Columnist EJ Montini, writing June 16 for AZCentral.com, had a posting entitled, “Should Catholic priests carry guns?“ Of the murder of Father Walker, Mr. Montini wrote:
“The two priests operated in a tough part of town. And priests have as much right to protect themselves as anyone else. But does it seem incongruous for a priest to have a gun?…the former altar boy in me can’t imagine any of the priests I met as a kid carrying a weapon.”
I am not advocating that priests carry handguns, and in fact there is no evidence at all that Father Joseph Terra ever did. According to the news accounts, after being brutally beaten with a tire iron, which fractured his skull among other serious injuries, he had to flee the scene to retrieve a weapon kept in a rectory nightstand. He then returned to try to stop the intruder from intruding any further. The crazed meth addict allegedly wrestled the weapon away from Father Terra, and then shot and killed Father Walker who had just entered the scene.
Can “the former altar boy” in EJ Montini imagine the priests he knew as a kid being beaten to death in their churches by crazed meth addicts? Until he can, he has no right to cast a shadow on the fact that a citizen who defended himself was also a Catholic priest. These men of God were not attacked for some high ideal such as their profession of faith. They were attacked – one murdered and one nearly so – for the mere contents of their wallets, and whatever plunder could be carried off.
EJ Montini equated this scene with a story of a World War II priest chaplain in a war zone who was “armed” only with his rosary. The comparison was an insult to both our intelligence and our faith. Has Catholic culture in America become so comfortable with the notion of the last two decades that its priests should be little more than expendable targets with no ability or right for self-defense?
One friend with whom I spoke of this case by telephone this week asked if my position on Father Terra’s gun seems incongruous with the case against capital punishment that I laid out in “Stay of Execution: Catholic Conscience and the Death Penalty.” It is not, and in fact the very same moral principles apply to Father Terra’s right and duty of self-defense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2263) quotes Saint Thomas Aquinas in the morally legitimate defense defined in CCC 2264 and 2265:
“The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life, and the killing of the aggressor. . . The one is Intended; the other Is not.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa II-II, 64, 7)
“Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life.
Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow.” (CCC 2264)
“Legitimate defense can be not only a right, but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.” (CCC 2265)
THE DEATH OF FATHER MICHAEL MACK
This story has brought back to me the full brunt of another tragic and eerily similar death of a priest with whom I once lived and who was – and remains – my friend. It’s an account that has come back to haunt me many times in the 12 years since it occurred, and with the Father Walker and Father Terra tragedy it has come back to haunt me again. I wrote some of this in a post called “The Holy Longing: An All Souls Day Spark for Broken Hearts,” but I had left out an important factor that I have often reflected upon since. What if I had been there?
On December 7, 2002, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, Father Michael Mack started a letter to me in prison from his rectory room in a parish in the Gallup, New Mexico Diocese where he had been assisting for several months. In the letter, Father Mike wrote of his decision to return to his community, the Servants of the Paraclete, and indeed was leaving that moment to commence the four-hour drive. He promised to continue the letter upon his return to the home he and I once lived in while I was a guest of that community, and a member of their staff in a ministry to wounded priests.
Late that night, as I was later able to piece together, Father Michael’s letter continued. Upon his arrival at the Servants of the Paraclete residence at midnight, he wrote of his happiness at finally being home, and of his hope that he might visit me in prison, might correspond more, and might help restore my freedom.
As he finished his midnight letter, Father Michael, who would have turned 60 two weeks later, did not know that he was not alone in that house. A 33-year-old drifter named Steven Degraff had chosen that night to break in through a back door, noting that the house had been empty for weeks as he staked it out. Armed with a knife and a hammer, hiding in a closet just fifteen feet from the desk where Father Mike finished his last letter to me, Steven Degraff awaited his moment to spring upon my friend.
Father Mike took his letter outside to a mailbox to be picked up the next day, and then walked back into that house to his death. His body was found the next day. Father Mike had been beaten to death with a hammer. The intruder then took Father Mike’s wallet and fled in Father Mike’s car.
Being in prison where no one can contact me except by mail, Father Mike’s last letter to me reached me just minutes before news of his murder. After mail call on the evening of December 12, 2002, I sat at a table outside my cell to read my friend’s letter. I can never forget this moment. As I read, someone laid the previous day’s newspaper on the table. With Father Mike’s letter still in my left hand, I turned the page to “National News Briefs” and read of his murder.
Days later, Steven Degraff was arrested in neighboring Santa Fe County for stealing yet another car, and for drug paraphernalia. He had served prison sentences in four states before killing Father Mike, a crime for which he confessed to police.
December 2002 was also the height of the nationwide explosion of claims of sexual abuse by priests, and the lurid news was not lost on Steven Degraff. Once Degraff talked with a lawyer, and learned that his murdered victim was a priest, he changed his story. This 33-year-old sociopath admitted that he broke into the home, but added that he killed Father Mike because the priest tried to molest him. Fortunately, even at the peak of the nationwide witch hunt about priests, Steven Degraff’s story was dismissed as a blatant lie, but not before it became lurid fodder for some in the news media.
Since then, I have often thought of what I might have done had I still lived in that house and was there with Father Mike that night. These are not pleasant thoughts for a priest – for anyone. In more reflective moments, I wish I could have left in that house the means for my friend to defend his own life. I have no doubt in my mind that if I had been there, Father Michael Mack would not have died.
BLAMING FATHER TERRA …RAISING UP PSYCHOPATHS
Finally, I must write of this story because I have lived for two decades with one foot in both worlds: the world of Father Kenneth Walker whose life was taken, and Father Joseph Terra, beaten and scapegoated, and the world of Gary Michael Moran, the career criminal and methamphetamine addict released from prison just six weeks before these horrific Phoenix crimes. I do not, as you know, live in that latter world by choice, or even by any act of my own.
But in the two decades in which I have been forced to live in that world, I have encountered many men like Gary Michael Moran and Steven Degraff in prison. Don’t think it is lost on me for a single moment that Moran had been paroled from prison three times – and the sociopath Steven Degraff four times – during the two decades that I have been kept in prison for crimes that never took place. This story is not about me – I know that – but it’s a sobering thought for anyone who still believes America’s criminal justice system is not broken and still works in real life like it does on TV’s “Law and Order.”
Far more than prison itself, however, it is the “Pollyanna” naiveté of so many Americans – both Catholics and not – that I find most demoralizing. The notion that men would not possibly accuse Catholic priests just for money is laughed at in prison by criminals like Gary Michael Moran and Steven Degraff. I have met some in prison who have snuffed out lives for a tiny fraction of the $200-grand doled out by my diocese to anyone ready to point at any priest.
I can no longer even count the number of times the minds of criminals have wandered in my direction, exploring ways to exploit our Catholic blindness about them while priests are thrown out of ministry – and sometimes into prison, and kept there. Should my post,“Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests“ now include even those who seek to defend themselves?
Might this tragedy in Phoenix cause some soul stirring about the bigger picture it represents? We can hope, and in fact it already has. A remarkable blog post by Rebecca Hamilton, “Guns; Blaming Father Terra for Trying to Defend Himself; And Raising Up Psychopaths,” (June 20) stands out among all the suggestive undertones about who wielded the murder weapon and how. I recommend reading all of it, but here is a portion that gave me pause:
“Guns are not the problem. We are . . . The problem is our unwinding society and the feral young people we are raising up inside it ….The blame-Father-Terra crowd is part of the problem...Good, normal people are always at a disadvantage in these situations…”
I have prayed for Steven Degraff over these twelve long years, and I will pray for Gary Michael Moran. So will the families, friends, and parishioners of Father Joseph Terra and our tragically lost son and brother, Father Kenneth Walker. These people are not Catholic lite. They know their duty to the Gospel, and they will do it.
And as for Father Joseph Terra, I hold you in the highest regard, and with the deepest respect. I humbly ask for your prayers, and from prison I offer you my fraternal blessing. May Divine Mercy reign in our hearts.
Editors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!