SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco’s cathedral installed a special sprinkler system to wash out “needles, feces and other dangerous items” from its doorways and never intended to remove homeless people sleeping there, the archdiocese explained in the face of media attacks.
“The problem was particularly dangerous because students and elderly people regularly pass these locations on their way to school and Mass every day,” San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop William Justice said March 18.
“The purpose was to make the cathedral grounds as well as the homeless people who happen to be on those grounds safer.”
Bishop Justice, who is also rector of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, said the cathedral installed the system about two years ago, after learning from “city resources” that such a system was in common use in the city’s financial district for “safety, security and cleanliness.”
The Archdiocese of San Francisco told CNA that members of the San Francisco Police Department had recommended the system to the cathedral’s previous rector.
Bishop Justice said dangerous items such as needles and feces were regularly being left in the cathedral’s hidden doorways.
He said people who were regularly sleeping in the doorways were informed in advance that the sprinklers were being installed: “The idea was not to remove those persons, but to encourage them to relocate to other areas of the cathedral, which are protected and safer.”
An initial report from San Francisco KCBS, which cited a cathedral staff member, claimed that the sprinkler system had been installed “to keep the homeless from sleeping in the cathedral’s doorways.”
The sprinkler system ran for about 75 seconds every 30 to 60 minutes. Reporters saw several homeless people and their belongings become soaked by the water and said the sprinkler system was ineffective at cleaning the area and lacked a drainage system.
Bishop Justice apologized that the cathedral’s intentions had been misunderstood and described the sprinkler system method as “ill-conceived.”
“It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do, and for this, we are very sorry.”
He noted that the San Francisco Archdiocese/St. Vincent de Paul Society is “the largest supporter of services for the homeless in San Francisco.”
“Every year, it helps many thousands of people through food, housing and shelter programs for people at risk, including homeless mothers and families, and in countless other ways,” the bishop said. “St. Mary's Cathedral is a huge part of that program and does more than any other Catholic church.”
Only hours after the first news report on the cathedral water system, the city of San Francisco issued a formal notice that the sprinkler system violates building and safety codes. Bishop Justice said the archdiocese had already started to remove the system.
Negative coverage of the cathedral did not come in a vacuum.
The San Francisco Archdiocese is presently the target of protests, critical media coverage and political pressure after Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced changes to archdiocesan high-school teachers’ handbooks intended to clarify Catholic religious and moral teachings. He also announced, and later withdrew, a proposed clause to Catholic high schools’ teacher contracts outlining teachers’ ministerial role.
The political reaction included a March 6 resolution from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors against the archbishop’s proposal.
Board member Mark Farrell, who sponsored the resolution, claimed in a March 18 tweet that the sprinkler system was “inhumane and appalling.”
Media coverage could be aggravated by the involvement of Sam Singer, founder of the influential San Francisco-based communications firm Singer Associates, whose clients include the Chevron oil company and prominent San Francisco newspapers.
Singer told the SF Weekly newspaper that “concerned parents” are paying for his services in their dispute with the archbishop. While the report indicated that the parents are from Catholic high schools, Singer told the National Catholic Reporter that he was in fact hired by parents, alumni and others opposed to the actions of Father Joseph Illo, a pastor at Star of the Sea Church and its K-8 school. The pastor’s decisions include having only male altar servers.
However, Singer is aiming at Archbishop Cordileone.
“Everyone is praying that the Pope will remove the San Francisco archbishop and these priests,” he said in a Feb. 18 Google+ post that referenced the Our Lady Star of the Sea controversy.
Singer’s social-media accounts are publicizing negative interpretations of the archbishop and the archdiocese, while promoting stories siding with the protesters. His Twitter account promoted press coverage of cathedral’s sprinkler system as well as some individuals’ negative reactions.