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A Catholic priest described a Hampden homicide victim as his “best friend” but denied having a romantic relationship with Renee Henneberry Clark in the months leading up to her death when he took the stand Thursday.
The Rev. Anthony Cipolle, 54, of Arlington, Massachusetts, testified on the fifth day of Philip Clark’s murder trial, unexpectedly reversing a decision made late Wednesday to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Against the advice of his attorneys, the priest decided overnight to testify.
Clark, 56, of Hampden has pleaded not guilty to intentional or knowing murder in the shooting death of Henneberry Clark, 49, his sister-in-law, on July 11, 2018. Her body was found two days after she died in the bedroom of her apartment at 557 Kennebec Road in Hampden, where Clark also had an apartment.
Clark confessed to police that he pulled the trigger after she pushed “every frigging button she could” until he snapped and shot her 10 times.
On Thursday, Cipolle admitted that he and Henneberry Clark removed Clark’s tools and other items from the Kennebec Road residence and took them to an Etna home she had rented.
The priest also admitted to the jury that he lost “his cool” about two hours before she died and got into a fist fight with Clark. He said that Clark, who smelled of alcohol, threw the first punch and he defended himself.
“He got worked up,” Cipolle said. “He pushed me. He spit at me. I spit at him. He punched me and I defended myself.”
The priest said that Clark punched him in the face and gave him a bloody nose.
“Philip had worked himself up to a point where he had this look in his eyes like he was going to kill me,” Cipolle testified. “I was in fear of my life. He worked himself up into a rage. I knew Renee had called the police, and I just needed to keep him from killing me until they got there.
“I’m not proud of this,” he told the jury. “I was supposed to turn the other cheek, but I felt my life was in danger.”
Cipolle said Thursday that he was angry that police did not arrest Clark after the fight. The priest did not give police a written statement about the fight.
“I’m in the business of forgiveness,” he testified Thursday when asked why he did not file a formal complaint with Hampden police
According to earlier testimony, Henneberry Clark was in the process of moving out of her Kennebec Road apartment and into the house in Etna. She had a protection from abuse order served on her husband on June 15. He was not living at the Hampden apartment when Henneberry Clark was killed.
Henneberry Clark had attempted to take out a protection from abuse order against Philp Clark, but it was denied because the law covers spouses, domestic partners and dating partners, but not a brother-in-law. However, a criminal trespass order against Philip Clark was in place when she was killed.
Cipolle said that he was “advising” Henneberry Clark as a parishioner in late June and early July because “Renee had paralyzing fear of Chuck and Phil Clark,” referring to Henneberry Clark’s estranged husband, Frank “Chuck” Clark, 57, of Hampden.
Cipolle testified that he helped Henneberry Clark remove marital assets from the Hampden home. The priest told jurors that he did not realize the tools belonged to Philip Clark.
Cipolle testified Thursday that he rented an apartment in the Etna house Henneberry Clark began renting in May 2018, which had two apartments. Cipolle said that when he was a seminarian, instructors had advised students to spend time away from their rectories on their days off. He testified that he rented it for that purpose and stayed there one or two nights a week.
“Most of the time on my day off I spent riding horses,” Cipolle said. “I wanted to be near there,” where his horse was stabled.
Cipolle said Thursday that he first met Henneberry Clark about 15 years ago when he came to Maine for treatment for a substance use disorder and Henneberry Clark was his counselor. Cipolle said they became reacquainted in December 2017 when he was assigned to the Bangor-area parish. He had been ordained the month before on Nov. 18, 2017.
Cipolle, who became emotional when cross-examined, testified that he took a voluntary leave of absence in December 2018 when he learned his mother had cancer. The priest remains on leave, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland confirmed earlier this week.
The priest is expected to be back on the stand Friday.
The state rested its case Thursday. Superior Court Justice William Stokes told jurors they would not get the case until Monday.
The defense team is expected to argue that Clark is guilty of manslaughter, not murder. Clark has been held without bail at the Penobscot County Jail since his arrest.
If convicted of murder, he faces 25 years to life in prison. He faces a maximum of 30 years in prison if found guilty of manslaughter.