Religious Freedom Week Shines Light on Anti-Catholic Vandalism
The US bishops made church vandalism a prayer intention during Religious Freedom Week, amid a string of damaging attacks on parishes.
Parishes across the U.S. have reported beheaded statues, broken crosses and murals, graffiti and other forms of vandalism in a wave of ugly incidents over the past year, leading the country’s Catholic bishops to highlight it during their just-completed Religious Freedom Week 2021.
“The precise reasons for these attacks are often unknown,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said for June 25, the day dedicated to church vandalism in Religious Freedom Week. “In some cases, they are tied to anger at perceived injustices from the past. Other cases may involve mental illness. In all cases, Catholics must remember that we worship the Lord who reveals the truth and beauty of the gospel in his suffering and resurrection, and that we are called to respond to aggression with compassion.”
At least 75 attacks on Catholic properties have occurred since May 2020, according to a USCCB page that tracks media reports of church property damage. The USCCB page records incidents in 24 states. Nearly half the listed incidents involved damage to a statue on church grounds, with about one out of six incidents involving arson or possible arson.
Another incident occurred on June 28, when a church in Denver was defaced with graffiti that appeared to have a possible relationship to the controversy in Canada over gravesites found recently at former government-owned residential schools for Indigenous people that were operated by Catholics.
Aaron Weldon, program specialist on the USCCB’s Committee for Religious Liberty, told the Register his committee began following vandalism at churches last year after several high-profile attacks.
“We always try to include a range of different topics relevant to religious freedom and thought this was a good year to include it and raise awareness about it,” he said.
Weldon said it has been difficult to point to a definitive reason underlying the attacks because “the motivations seem to be so varied,” he said.
“In some cases, it’s been connected to protests about past injustices or perceived injustices. Sometimes there might be general anger against the Church, and in other cases, there is no reason at all,” Weldon said.
The most common type of incident, Weldon said, is decapitation or destruction of statues of the Holy Family and of the saints. The damage in these incidents “pales compared to the loss of life other faiths have suffered,” he said, but because statues communicate the faith and honor examples of Christian holiness, “even if the reasons are varied, it is difficult not to regard the attacks on our statues as attacks on our faith,” he said.
That being said, Weldon cautioned the attacks are not all hate crimes.
“Some have been investigated as hate crimes, but since the motive is sometimes unclear, I’m unsure how many can be charged that way. But we hope law enforcement thoroughly investigates so we can get a better sense of what is going on,” he said.
In 2019, the year with the most recent available FBI data on hate crimes, there were 66 anti-Catholic offenses reported. Thirty-seven of them involved property damage, destruction or vandalism and five were arson. During the same time period, there were 684 incidents of anti-Jewish vandalism and 31 incidents of anti-Muslim vandalism.
Weldon said the USCCB along with other religious groups have lobbied for increased funding for the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which supports security upgrades and training to nonprofits and houses of worship.
At St. Mary Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, a statue of the Sacred Heart at St. Charles Borromeo Chapel was decapitated between May 2-3. Father Michael Nolan, St. Mary’s pastor, told the Register a police investigation had not found any suspects or evidence it had been motivated by anti-Catholic animus.
Father Nolan said he hopes whoever did it comes forward as a matter of justice.
“We want to find the person and we want to forgive them, help restore them,” he said. “If it was a malicious attack, we want to stop it so people don’t put their souls in danger. Any attack on a symbol of God is an attack on God.”
The statue, placed close to the sidewalk, could have been the victim of destructive teens, a mentally ill passerby, or a drunken patron from the nearby bars, Father Nolan said. Businesses in the area suffer from vandalism, and the chapel’s isolation during the pandemic — it has not been used for worship in more than a year — could have made it an easy target.
“It’s not right, it’s not okay and I don’t want to diminish people driving their cars into church and setting them on fire, but we have no evidence of sacrilege or vandalism. It’s important to highlight it but not go overboard,” he said.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, two attacks on church properties over three days in May prompted Msgr. Anthony Hernandez, the diocese’s moderator of the curia, to say in a press release, “We are definitely concerned that there is a pattern of hate crimes against Catholics.” On May 14, a crucifix at St. Athanasius, Brooklyn was toppled over and an American flag burned. Three days later, a statue outside the chancery offices was beheaded.
“Hatred and intolerance of the Catholic faith, and for that matter any faith, has no place here,” he said.
Msgr. David Cassato, pastor of St. Athanasius, told the Register the attack against his church was deliberate; while mental illness may be a factor, surveillance footage showed it was more than a spur-of-the-moment impulse. The man caught on camera attacking the parish has been charged with criminal mischief as a hate crime and has been charged with a federal hate crime for setting a fire a week later at a Brooklyn yeshiva, an educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional Jewish religious texts.
The evening after he discovered the attack, the monsignor said about 400 people gathered on the church grounds to pray in front of a temporary cross he put up.
Msgr. Cassato said that when he discovered the cross on the ground, with “the face of Jesus in the dirt,” he immediately thought of Christ’s words from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“To be honest, I’m having a real hard time forgiving him,” he said. “It’s challenging me, it really is.”
Changed Hearts Needed
Looking at the rash of vandalism in his own diocese, Msgr. Cassato said mental illness and increased homelessness could play a part, as well as increased crime rates, but also pointed to a changed quality in how people talk.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there, it’s very harsh at times the way people are talking to each other,” he said. “You’re almost afraid to say anything to anyone, you don’t know what the anger people hold is.”
The monsignor pointed to his parish’s ministries in the neighborhood, such as weekly meals that serve 150 and a school that serves many low-income families.
“How someone would want to do an attack on us is very strange. We’re out there serving, we’re out there trying to do God’s work and you see this hurt happening to us, and you say ‘what is it all about?’” he said. “How do you change it? You just have to keep doing it, and hopefully it will change.”
Nicholas Wolfram Smith is a Register correspondent.