Louisiana priest who desecrated altar charged with vandalism

Fr Travis Clark St Tammany Parish Sheriff Fr. Travis Clark after his Sept. 30 arrest. | St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office.

A priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans arrested last year along with two women after filming a pornographic video on a parish church altar has been charged with vandalism.

Fr. Travis Clark, 37, along with Mindy Dixon, 41, and Melissa Cheng, 28, were charged March 18 with felony vandalism by the local district attorney.

Each face up to two years imprisonment if found guilty.

On Sept. 30, 2020, Fr. Clark, recently the pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul parish in Pearl River, 40 miles northeast of New Orleans, was discovered filming himself in sex acts with Dixon and Cheng on the altar of the parish church.

A local resident told police they noticed the lights were on in the church and looked through the windows, discovering the three. One of the women is reported to be a self-avowed satanist.

Fr. Clark was arrested on an obscenity charge Oct. 1, and was released from jail on a $25,000 bond.

He was also removed from priestly ministry Oct. 1.

Sarah McDonald, communications director at the New Orleans archdiocese, told CNA last year that Fr. Clark been asked to "seek laicization immediately." If he does not request dismissal from the clerical state, he could face the penalty as the result of a canonical trial.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans performed a penitential rite required for continued use of the church for sacramental purposes Oct. 10, and consecrated a new altar.

Fr. Clark was ordained a priest in 2013.

A seminary professor told CNA in October that Fr. Clark had been a poor student who made little effort, which should have been a red flag.

Chistopher Baglow, a theologian who taught Fr. Clark in seminary, told CNA that he believes the priest's misdeeds point to a problem with seminary evaluation.

In the seminary, nothing about Fr. Clark's behavior suggested that the priest would later do the things of which he is accused, Baglow said. But he did recall concerns about the seminarian.

The theologian remembered Fr. Clark for being a student who didn't participate in class, was negligent of assignments, and seemed often "to be flying under the radar."

"It was clear he wasn't trying, and some made it known," Baglow said. "It was often countered that pastoral gifts and holiness do not require great theological genius, and the concern was expressed by some colleagues that we should avoid focusing too much on academics."

But Baglow said his concern about Fr. Clark, or other students who gave evidence of not trying, was not about academics, but character.

Baglow said he does not expect academic excellence from all students. But he does believe seminaries should expect effort, and evidence of virtue, in students.

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"Tolerating mediocrity in a man allows tolerance for other kinds of unacceptable things."
"Mediocrity can be a cover for other problems - sometimes very serious problems," Baglow said.

Condoning "mediocrity" in the evaluation of seminarians, the theologian said, lowers the Church's standards in the calibre of men who become priests. The Church should accept men for priesthood who want to be excellent academically, spiritually, pastorally, and morally, Baglow told CNA.

The theologian told CNA that in his view "the system isn't broken, it's just missing a part."
He urged that seminaries develop committees of "well-formed knowledgeable Catholic lay people who are part of vocation evaluation and discernment."

Such committees would give recommendations about the suitability of candidates for orders independent of seminary staff or faculty, Baglow said, giving bishops the benefit of perspective and judgement outside the clerical and ecclesiastical milieu.

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