Mass at California Catholic church interrupted by armed police pursuit

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The celebration of Mass at a southern California parish was interrupted by an armed police pursuit of a suspected gunman on Tuesday morning. 

The incident occurred during the 8:30 a.m. Mass on Tuesday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Placentia, Orange County, California.

As the priest was elevating the Eucharist just after the consecration, officers entered the sanctuary, shouting at a suspected gunman hiding among the attendees, according to reporting by local news station KCAL News. The incident was captured on the parish’s Mass livestream, though the video appears to have since been taken down.

Video excerpts taken from the Mass livestream by KCAL News show the priest raising the host and chalice, praying the words “Behold, the Lamb of God” as police begin shouting in the back of the church. The video shows the priest lower the host and parishioners raise their hands as the scene unfolds.

Nick Sherg, a deacon at St. Joseph parish who was present at the Mass, told CNA that about 40 police officers entered the sanctuary with guns drawn. Sherg said that the police apprehended the suspected gunman without a struggle and that the man is “a known parishioner who was subsequently released without charge.” 

Sherg called the incident “surreal” but said that he never felt afraid for his safety because he “never saw any acts of aggression or violence by the suspect.” 

“I actually felt comforted knowing that the police responded in such a timely, professional and efficient manner,” he said. “My sense is that they were unaware of the intent of the suspect and wanted to do their job as quickly as possible.”

Sgt. Joe Connell, a representative for the Placentia Police Department, confirmed with CNA that the incident occurred. He said that the officers chose to enter the church during Mass out of concern for the safety of the parishioners and nearby schools. 

Connell said that the man apprehended had been reported firing at least one shot from a handgun in the vicinity and was then seen entering the church. While Connell said that the officers entered with guns drawn, he said there were “approximately 10 officers,” not 40. 

“Officers entered during Mass due to the fact that we had information of an armed subject being inside. If we waited until Mass was over and the parishioners were leaving, the situation could have potentially become worse,” Connell explained.

“We saw that the subject in question was sitting in a pew towards the rear of the church. The vast majority of parishioners were seated towards the front. Having them seated, instead of on foot and potentially running/scattering after Mass was a much better option for the safety of officers and parishioners both,” Connell said. “Additionally, we also had St. Joe’s school and other public schools in the area. [The] last thing we wanted was for an armed subject to run from us and onto one of those campuses.”

Connell said that officers apprehended the suspected gunman, who they believed posed an immediate threat to all in the vicinity. 

“Based on the information we had, yes, we believed he very well could have been a threat to parishioners, St. Joe’s school students and staff, as well as the public as a whole,” he said, adding that “we understand and are definitely sensitive to the fact that this was not the best time during Mass to apprehend the subject. However, overall public safety is paramount.”

Connell also said that the Placentia Police Department “spoke with the priest during this entire incident and after” and that “once the church was made safe and the male was in our custody, we had everyone go back inside and complete Mass.”

A Tuesday statement by St. Joseph Parish said that “everybody was evacuated from the church as they [the police officers] continued their search, evaluation, and investigations.”

According to the parish the church and school were placed on lockdown while the police searched the area for additional suspects as well as the handgun.

“We were able to come back into Mass and finish around 9:30 a.m.,” the St. Joseph statement said. Everyone was released at approximately 10:45 a.m. and “everything is back to normal,” it said.

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The parish thanked the Placentia Police Department “for their professionalism and efficiency.”

Connell said that “the male who was apprehended was interviewed by detectives at the PD [police department]” and that “after an exhaustive search, the handgun that was reported was never located.”

According to Connell the man has since been released and the investigation is ongoing. Connell explained that “based on this, we are not releasing his information.”

This article has been updated.

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