Why Would a Catholic Cleric Desecrate an Altar?

Q: Probably you already know all about the priest in New Orleans who desecrated the altar of his parish together with a couple of prostitutes….  The bishop announced that he had the altar burned and would consecrate a new one.  My wife and I were surprised at how quickly this was done and we’re wondering if the bishop shouldn’t have spent more time investigating the facts first … why for example was this man even a priest?  We’re having a hard time imagining that he was a model Catholic all his life and then one morning he woke up and decided to do this! –Josh

A: By now the news of the appalling incident which Josh references has made its way around the world—which is actually a good sign, because it tells us that this sort of action is considered shocking enough to be newsworthy.  For the benefit of those who might still be unfamiliar with what happened, let’s first review the facts that are known to us.  Then we can sort out and examine the different canonical issues raised by Josh and his wife.

In the evening on September 30, somebody was passing Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, a parish in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Louisiana (USA), and noticed that the lights were on inside.  Curious, the passerby went to a window and looked in—and saw the parish priest, Fr. Travis Clark, engaging in sex acts on the altar with two women.  The person video-recorded what he saw, and phoned the police.

Ironically, what the priest and the women were doing inside the church was technically not illegal in itself, as horrible as it was.  As pastor of the parish, Fr. Clark had access to the church and had let the women come in, so they were not trespassing; and the sex was evidently consensual and did not involve minor children. But the fact that their activity could be seen through the window by others constituted the crime of obscenity, and so the three were arrested on that charge.

Unsurprisingly, when the Archbishop of New Orleans found out what had happened, he instantly removed Fr. Clark from his office as pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul (see “When Can a Pastor be Removed From Office?” for more on this process), and suspended him from ministry (this censure is discussed in detail in “Father Pavone’s ‘Suspension’: Priests for Life, Part I”).  Incidentally, since Josh brings it up, it’s likely there was relatively little that needed to be done by the Archbishop by way of an “investigation”: Fr. Clark’s actions were caught on video, and the priest does not seem to have denied the allegations.  The Archbishop also announced on October 9 that the altar upon which the three had engaged in sex had been removed from the church and burned, and declared that he would consecrate a new altar (which apparently he did the next day).  Those are the facts as we know them.

There are a couple of separate canonical questions that the incident raises.  The first one is not mentioned by Josh, but since we’re on the subject we might as well look at it: it involves the treatment of an altar which has been desecrated.  The second is more complicated: why would a Catholic man who had given his life to Christ, and been ordained a priest, deliberately arrange to do the hellacious things that he did?

Let’s first look at what happened to the altar in Sts. Peter and Paul Church.  It appears that the altar in question was the main altar of the parish church, and as such it constituted a “fixed” altar, meaning that it was permanent (c. 1235).  As we saw in “Canon Law and Closing a Parish,” such an altar must be dedicated (in years gone by this was referred to as a consecration, a different word that meant the same thing) as per canon 1237.1.  And canon 1237.2 tells us that fixed altars should also contain at least one first-class relic, as was discussed in “Canon Law and the Private Ownership of Relics (Part I).”  When an altar has been dedicated/consecrated as such, this means that it exists solely for sacred use: as canon 1239.1 puts it, the altar must be reserved for divine worship alone, to the absolute exclusion of any profane use.  This is why, as we saw in “When Can a Church Be Used for Non-Liturgical Events?” there are strict regulations on the sorts of events that are supposed to take place in a church—which constitutes a “sacred place” in canon law—and what aren’t.

It shouldn’t be necessary to explain to anybody that sexual activity (among three people, no less!) isn’t supposed to take place in a parish church on a dedicated altar, which exists to be used for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  This is why the Archbishop rightly declared that the altar would be destroyed—no doubt removing the relic(s) inside it first—because such a horrible act of desecration rendered it no longer suitable for the celebration of Mass.

There are a couple of different penal canons which can be applied to the perpetrators of such a heinous act—but let’s first remember that canon law does not bind non-Catholics, and there’s no indication that the two women involved in this escapade are members of the Catholic Church.  All three were arrested by the secular authorities, for committing a crime in New Orleans, Louisiana; but canonical sanctions can be applied only to Fr. Clark.

Canon 1376 asserts that a person who profanes a sacred object is to be punished with “a just penalty.”  This a flexible term, which in this case was interpreted by the Archbishop of New Orleans as removal of Fr. Clark not only from his ecclesiastical office, but from priestly ministry altogether.  Another relevant canon is canon 1395.2, which tells us,

A cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.

The key word that makes this canon pertinent to the situation at hand is “publicly.”  The women involved were adults, and they were there in the church of their own free will; but because it was possible for a passerby to view their sexual activity through the church window(s), canon 1395.2 can thus be applied to Fr. Clark.  Without knowing the specific details of what the Archbishop of New Orleans has planned for this priest of the Archdiocese … it seems safe to presume that these canons will be at least part of the equation.

This leads us logically to the next part of Josh’s question.  What would prompt a man who had discerned a vocation to the priesthood, studied for years prior to his reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders in 2013, and then worked in priestly ministry for several years more, to decide to engage in sex acts on the main altar of his parish church with two professional sex-workers?  As Josh put it, “We’re having a hard time imagining that he was a model Catholic all his life and then one morning he woke up and decided to do this!”  While there have been lots of priests over the centuries who have tragically failed in their promise to live a celibate life (see “Celibacy and the Priesthood” for more on this), one hopes that the vast majority of those who have sinned in this manner haven’t gone out of their way to do so in church, desecrating an altar in the process.  It’s also worth noting that this incident happened to take place on the night of the full moon, which may or may not be a coincidence.  In short, there are good reasons why the Archbishop described Fr. Clark’s actions as “demonic.”

Without first hearing Fr. Clark’s side of the story, it would be risky and unjust to draw conclusions as to his specific motives for doing this.  The human person is a complex creation, and the deep, underlying reasons why we do the things we do are frequently too complicated to explain to others!  The best we can do is stand back and look at the situation from the outside, and try to figure out what went so horrifically wrong—because no Catholic in his right mind wants this sort of thing to ever happen again.  Let’s examine the objective facts that we have, to see whether we can reach a tentative verdict on what could possibly be going on here.

One of Fr. Clark’s seminary professors has said that Clark was “a student who didn’t participate in class, was negligent of assignments and seemed often ‘to be flying under the radar.’”  The professor said, “It was clear he wasn’t trying,” and opined that Clark’s lack of effort “was not about academics, but about character.”

That’s a red flag right there.  If you’re planning to spend the rest of your life doing God’s work, wouldn’t you be at least interested in learning more about Him in school first?  Note that the prof’s complaint wasn’t that Fr. Clark did poorly in school because as a student he wasn’t too bright—nor should it be.  Over the centuries the Catholic Church has had plenty of great priests whose academic skills were frankly appalling (including not only Franciscan St. Joseph Cupertino, but also St. John Vianney, a.k.a. the Curé of Ars, who today is the patron saint of parish priests).  But they were nonetheless spectacularly successful in ministry, because what such men may have lacked in intellectual capacity was more than made up for in personal virtue.

No, the seminary professor’s point is that as a seminarian, Fr. Clark didn’t seem to care—which begs the question, what was he doing there in the first place?  While it must be emphasized again that we don’t know the full story on Fr. Clark, we do, unfortunately, have lots of hard evidence that for many decades Catholic seminaries all over the world have been infiltrated, in various ways by members of various anti-Catholic organizations.

Bella Dodd (1904-1969) was an Italian immigrant to the United States who became a college professor in New York City.  Objecting to the often unjust treatment of teachers by their employers, she became actively involved in the Communist Party of America in the years preceding World War II.  Dodd’s interest in communism was ideological and sincere; she genuinely believed that this was the solution to social injustice.  As she recounted in her autobiography (which can be read here, in an edition that is now out of copyright), Dodd gradually came to realize that the communists weren’t interested at all in the true wellbeing of workers.  Disillusioned, she returned to the Catholic faith which she had lost as a child, and was schooled in the Church’s teachings by none other than Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, who at the time was an Auxiliary Bishop of New York (see “Bishops, Coadjutors, and Auxiliaries” for more on what this title means).

In her book, Dodd says nothing about any involvement of the Communist Party in the workings of the Catholic Church; but in private conversations she admitted that she had personally been tasked with secretly inserting communist agents into Catholic seminaries.  Bella Dodd claimed that she herself had successfully recruited over 1000 communist agents to study for the priesthood.  These men managed to convince bishops or religious superiors that God was calling them to become priests; and they spent years in seminary formation, pretending all the while that they were doing this for the love of God.

Bella Dodd’s claims aren’t the only evidence we’ve got that communists have been infiltrating the Church—far from it.  For much of the 20th century, the US ran a counterintelligence program called the Venona Project, intended to intercept encrypted messages from Soviet intelligence agencies.  Here too evidence was obtained that the Catholic Church was a long-term target of infiltration.

As anyone familiar with Soviet espionage can tell you, their overall strategy involved infiltrating not only the Church, but any and all major Western institutions, including academia, journalism, Hollywood and big business.  Their “sleepers” would wait for years, even decades, working innocently in their positions (and ideally being promoted up the career-ladder) until the order came for them to act.  How many of these sleeper-agents still hold ecclesiastical offices in the Catholic Church around the world today is anybody’s guess.

But before anybody concludes that “this is all the communists’ fault!” and blames all the Catholic Church’s woes on “the Russians,” it’s important to point out that there are other anti-Catholic forces out there that are known to have done essentially the same thing.  It’s been nearly twenty years since author Michael Rose penned his first edition of Goodbye, Good Men, in which he provided loads of first-hand accounts in support of his position that Catholic seminaries had in many cases been taken over by active homosexuals among the clergy—who deliberately drove solid, heterosexual seminarians out of the seminary while they promoted active homosexuals to ordination instead.  It’s not been definitively established whether this was a systematized policy by an organized group, or “just” the work of individual homosexuals who instinctively worked to protect each other; but what is undeniable is that it has been successful.  Anybody who doubts that there is now what is commonly known as a “lavender mafia” within the Church needs to wake up.

On top of all that, it is well known in many parts of Europe—ask any informed lay-Catholic here in Italy, for example!—that Masonic lodges have been striving to infiltrate the Church for generations.  (See “Can Catholics Become Freemasons?” for more on the grave significance of this.)  There’s apparently a good reason why Italian journalist Mino Pecorelli was assassinated in 1979 after compiling what is now known as “Pecorelli’s List,” containing the names of various Catholic clergy who were/are alleged to be secret Freemasons.

In light of all this, stunning revelations like the long-time sexual abuse of both children and seminarians by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick are still scandalous … but they make a lot more sense.  Perhaps we should be less shocked that there are clergy like him in the Church, and more surprised that despite the infiltration, we nevertheless still have as many truly good priests and bishops as we do!

Returning to Fr. Clark in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to date nobody has provided any hard evidence tying him directly to any plot to infiltrate the Catholic Church.  But speaking in very broad terms, whenever we hear of clergy who outwardly seem to be sound and holy men, but later turn out to be anything but, let’s at least bear in mind that there are quite a few possible reasons for this.

Sadly, there are lots of Catholics around the world who have left the Church because of revelations about corruption and abuse.  What’s important to remember, however, is that Catholicism’s enemies target the Church precisely because they know it is a powerful force for good in the world.  If the Catholic Church weren’t a threat to evil organizations, they wouldn’t expend so much time and effort trying to destroy it!  Their attacks are, paradoxically, proof that the Church really was founded by God Himself; if the Catholic Church were nothing but a fraud, the wicked would simply leave us alone.

We would all do well to remember what Christ Himself said to Peter, when He chose him as the first Pope:

I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).

And since the Church is Christ’s, and Christ is God, we know that it is in good Hands!  Let’s keep praying for our clergy, while never losing sight of the fact that God is firmly in control.

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Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter, 1481-2, Sistine Chapel, Rome

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