Ex-Modesto priest says he forgives man accused of shooting him

Los Angeles TimesJune 17, 2014 

Priests Attacked

The Rev. Kenneth Walker, left, and the Rev. Joseph Terra perform a baptism ceremony in Phoenix. Walker was killed and Terra, who served at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto, was critically injured during a robbery attempt at Mother of Mercy Mission church on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

THE CATHOLIC SUN FILE

— People clapped, gasped and cried when a man pushed the Rev. Joseph Terra into the room full of parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena here 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 – who began his career in the Northern San Joaquin Valley – didn’t move much. His hands were heavily bandaged, his eyes bruised and swollen, the top of his head 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 accused of injuring him and of killing the Rev. Kenneth Walker, 28, Terra spoke softly.

“I have forgiven him,” said the priest, who was ordained by the Most Rev. Donald Montrose, bishop of the Stockton Diocese, in June 1989. According to the diocese, the Lodi-born Terra served at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church from August 1989 until July 1993, then served at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Angels Camp until November 1994. At that time, Terra left the diocese to join a conservative religious order, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

“This past Sunday, we included him in our prayers,” said the Rev. Ramon Bejarano, pastor of St. Stanislaus Catholic Community.

And parishioner Neida Savage believes it was Sunday morning that she got a phone call from Terra assuring her that he was going to be all right. “I picked up the phone and he said, ‘Neida,’ and I thought, ‘This just can’t be.’ ” They spoke just briefly, she said, because he wanted to put her mind at ease.

Savage, 86, is a longtime friend of Terra’s who still gets visits from him when he’s in Modesto – most recently within the past couple of months.

She was “shocked” when her niece informed her of the attack and Terra’s injuries. And she was surprised to hear how well he’s recovering. “From what I heard in the beginning, I was worried that he wasn’t going to make it. But he’s always been tough – he’s the hardest-working man I’ve ever met.”

Phoenix 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. 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.

On June 12, according to police, Moran broke into an enclosed courtyard at the rectory. 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, then used Terra’s gun to shoot Walker, who had come to investigate the commotion, police said. Terra said he was able to deliver last rites to Walker before he died.

Police said DNA evidence connected Moran to the scene. Police said a witness tipped them off that Moran was “bragging about beating a priest and robbing him.”

Bee local news editor Deke Farrow contributed to this report.

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