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December 22, 2014

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Phoenix priest says he forgives man accused in church attack

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The Catholic Sun / AP

In this photo provided by The Catholic Sun, date not known, the Rev. Kenneth Walker, left, and the Rev. Joseph Terra perform a Mass in Phoenix. Walker was killed and Terra was critically injured during a robbery attempt at Mater Misericordiae Mission on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

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Parishioners kneel at the front door at the Roman Catholic church Mater Misericordiae Mission at a makeshift memorial for the Rev. Kenneth Walker on Thursday, June 12, 2014. An attack at the downtown Phoenix church the previous day left Walker dead and the Rev. Joseph Terra critically injured.

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 killing Father Kenneth Walker, 28, Terra spoke softly.

"I have forgiven him," he said.

Police on Thursday 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 Garcia described Moran as a "career criminal" who had just completed a five-year prison term in April for a 2005 home burglary 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. When Terra came to investigate, the intruder hit him several times, including in the head, with an iron rod, police said.

Terra got away and retrieved a gun he kept in his nightstand — a Colt Python .357 — but 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 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's 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 celebrate Mass in Latin. Emphasis is placed on personal sacrifice in order to be closer to God.

Since the attack, the order's priests have spoken out for spiritual forgiveness.

"There is always forgiveness. It's important for us to remember the man who committed this act. ... We should pray for him," said 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."

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, and he was booked on eight charges, including murder. It wasn't clear Monday whether 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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