UPDATE– St. Tammany Parish D.A. Warren Montgomery has changed the charges to “institutional vandalism.” Bradley Phillips, lawyer for the two women, says the lesser charge represents “a thinly veiled attempt to regulate the morality of private individuals.”
Pearl River, La. – Archbishop Gregory Aymond somberly sprinkled holy water on the walls and altar of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Pearl River on Saturday (Oct. 10).
He also sprinkled holy water on the parishioners, who are still stunned by an incident involving their former priest.
According to court documents, on the night of September 30th, Father Travis Clark and two women could be seen having sex – in the church sanctuary– on the altar.
In the Catholic faith, such a brazenly sacrilegious act would defile the church.
After a week of turmoil for the congregation and the Archdiocese, Archbishop Aymond went to Pearl River to reassure parishioners that they could worship there again in holiness.
Some of them quietly wept in the pews as Aymond told them that Father Clark had committed a “demonic” act. He announced that the Archdiocese had removed Clark from the ministry and burned the altar that was in place on the night of the incident. At the service, Aymond anointed a new altar with the holy water and holy oil.
“When a church is used for an unholy act,” he told the congregation, “we must drive away the evil spirit. ”
While consensual sex between adults is not a crime, Clark and the two women involved, Mindy Dixon and Melissa Cheng, are each charged with one count of obscenity because their actions were allegedly spotted by a passerby, peering into a church window.
But the lawyer for the women, Bradley Phillips of New Orleans, disputes the idea that what was happening could be seen from the street.
In a statement released to the media, Phillips said he understands that the congregation is upset, but says the women “are being vilified” without cause.
“Everything that occurred,” says Phillips in the statement, “took place behind closed doors, on private property, and none of the conduct alleged was criminal in nature.”
For the congregation, however, the incident is shocking and embarrassing. News outlets around the nation and the world have picked up the salacious story, from the “New York Post” to the “The Sun” in London.
Pearl River Alderwoman Kathryn Walsh, who’s also a church member, says she’s heard about the world-wide coverage but she says that what happened in the church “does not define the town.”
Walsh is grateful for the support from the Archdiocese, and for the prayers of friends and fellow Catholics from other churches.
“We love where we live and who we are,” she says, “we need to move on now with the positive.”
Parishioner Steve Fecke attended the sanctification, and a church fundraiser afterward that he said was needed in the wake of the scandal.
Fecke says that he worked side by side with Father Clark at the church for several weeks, helping him prepare for Mass. He describes Clark as “reserved” but also intelligent and friendly, and he says the incident is “totally out of character.”
“I know his parents and grandparents,” he says, “they’re wonderful Catholic people” who regularly attended the church to see Clark lead the services.
Yet Fecke also believes that every person hides some kind of sin. And as the Bible says, let the person without sin cast the first stone.
“The devil got the best of him in a moment of weakness.”