PHOENIX (Reuters) - A 29-year-old priest was shot to death and his pastor badly beaten during what police described as a burglary at a Catholic church in Phoenix, authorities said on Thursday.
Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia said officers were notified of a break-in late on Wednesday at the Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission church.
He said the crime occurred in the living quarters attached to the church, and that investigators had found “strong physical evidence.”
“The Phoenix Police Department will exhaust our resources in bringing to justice the individuals who committed this crime,” Garcia said. “We need to bring closure to this offense.”
He said detectives were canvassing the surrounding area and asking local businesses to hand over any security camera footage that might help the search for suspects.
Garcia said that while the crime was initially reported as a burglary, it was too early to determine the motive behind the attacks on the priests. He urged members of the public to come forward if they had any information.
The slain priest was identified by the Diocese of Phoenix as the Rev. Kenneth Walker, an assistant pastor.
The injured priest is the Rev. Joseph Terra, a pastor, who police said was in a critical but stable condition. Church officials said both men belonged to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a religious order.
The Rev. Fred Adamson of the Phoenix Diocese said that Terra, despite being very badly injured, managed to call the police and performed the last rites on his colleague.
“Father Terra is a pretty strong man,” Adamson told a news conference alongside Garcia and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.
“He is not afraid of anybody and if someone came and asked him for something, he would give him the shirt off his back. That’s the type of priest he is, a real servant of God.”
Adamson said Walker was known to be “a man of prayer, a very simple man.”
Police said they hoped to get more information on the assailants from Terra as he recovers. A Mazda Tribute car belonging to the church was found abandoned a few blocks away.
The Phoenix mayor said the bloodshed was a tragedy that struck to the core.
“Every American should feel safe in a house of worship,” Stanton said. “And that basic value was violated last night in an unspeakable way.”
Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson and Mary Wisniewski; Editing by James Dalgleish, Daniel Wallis, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney