Priest who filmed sex on altar criminally charged, archdiocese mum on canonical charges

News: Archdiocese of New Orleans

The priest arrested last year after having sex with two prostitutes atop a parish altar has been charged with felony vandalism. But while criminal charges are being pressed the Archdiocese of New Orleans has declined to say what kind of canonical charges the priest will face, or whether he might be laicized after desecrating the altar.

Father Travis Clark, a New Orleans priest and former pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, along with Mindy Dixon and Melissa Cheng, both of whom advertise themselves as professional dominatrices, will each face one count of “knowingly vandalizing, defacing, or otherwise damaging property and causing damage valued at over $500 and under $50,000” at Clark’s former parish, a Louisiana district attorney’s office announced Friday.

If convicted, Clark, Dixon, and Cheng could each face two years in prison.

Clark, Dixon, and Cheng were observed in late September 2020 filming themselves engaged in sexual congress on the altar at Clark’s former parish. They had illuminated the altar with stage lights, according to a passerby who witnessed the incident through a window, and according to police reports. After they were arrested Sept. 30, all three were initially charged with obscenity, a charge which could have resulted in three-year prison sentences.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans announced in early October that the desecrated altar had been destroyed, and the archbishop performed a rite of reconsecration in the church.

Aymond also announced that Clark, 37, would “never again” serve in priestly ministry. But the New Orleans archdiocese told The Pillar in February that it “was not at liberty to discuss the status of canonical proceedings.”

While canon law does protect the confidentiality of what happens within a canonical penal process, it does not regard the existence of such a process itself as a secret. 

The New Orleans archdiocese has not yet responded to The Pillar’s second request for an update, which was sent Monday morning.

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Canon law provides that anyone “who profanes a movable or immovable sacred object is to be punished with a just penalty,” and that a cleric who has “committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue...publicly...is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.”

Dismissal from the clerical state is the canonical penalty commonly referred to as laicization.

Clark was ordained a priest in 2013. In October, priests in the New Orleans archdiocese told reporters that the priest was quiet and kept to himself. Some priests said at the time that Clark’s seminary nickname was Lurch, a reference to the gloomy butler in television’s “The Addams Family.”

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Christopher Baglow, a theologian who taught Clark in seminary, recalled in October that Clark was the sort of quiet student who seemed to be “flying under the radar.”

“It was clear he wasn’t trying, and some made it known,” Baglow said in October.

Noting that some professors raised red flags about Clark while administrators moved him toward ordination, the professor added that “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 added.

When Clark was ordained a deacon in 2012, he told the archdiocesan newspaper in New Orleans that among his role models was Fr. Patrick Wattigny, a former high school chaplain who admitted last year that in 2013 he sexually abused a minor, and who has been accused of sending “grooming” text messages to high school students as recently as 2020.

Wattigny, who was also arrested last year, has been charged with child molestation, a Louisiana district attorney’s office announced on Friday. The New Orleans archdiocese has also declined to comment on his canonical status, citing confidentiality.