By Rita E. Piro
Armed with buckets of black paint, vandals in Abbeville, Louisiana, covered a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux with satanic symbols. In Houston, a man fired gunshots into an outdoor statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Ocala, Florida, a man drove a pickup truck through the front entrance of a church, poured 10 gallons of gasoline in the foyer, and set fire to the building. And in Citrus Heights, California, a monument of the Ten Commandments was spray-painted with swastikas and a nearby statue of Our Lady of Grace was decapitated.
Violence against Catholic churches, statues, and religious objects, in particular, has increased greatly during the past year. Since May 2020, there have been more than 81 confirmed attacks on Catholic churches in 25 states, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Vandals have toppled, defaced, destroyed, and set fire to Catholic schools, churches, offices, convents, monasteries, statues, and devotional objects.
“They’re statues, but they’re representations of our tradition,” said Bishop David Bonner of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, when 18 statues, including those of St. John Paul II, St. Anthony of Padua, and the Blessed Mother, were seriously damaged on the grounds of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Basilica. “They hold a sacredness. It’s who we are and what we stand for.”
Msgr. David Cassato, pastor of St. Athanasius, Bensonhurst, understands well just how personal church vandalism can be. On May 14, vandals toppled the large wooden structure depicting the crucifixion of Jesus that stood on the lawn outside the church. The crucifix, which was installed in memory of Cassato’s mother, who lived in the rectory during her last two years of life, had been a fixture at the church for the past 11 years.
“Today is the saddest day of my 20 years here at this parish,” said Msgr. Cassato at a press conference that day.
During the post-World War II era, instances of church desecration were rare and usually the result of prankish teen behavior, drawing responses of swift and emphatic attention by parents and pastors. With the arrival of the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, such anti-religion actions became more deliberate, as mostly older teens and young adults lashed out to protest many of the societal conventions that were being challenged on a daily basis.
Anti-Catholic behavior, however, have displayed palpable hate and hostility. Just what provokes someone to desecrate religious items and buildings? The most readily available targets for aggression have often been religious institutions — churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Numerous causes and motivations underlie hate crimes, more specifically “religious’ or ‘faith-based” ones, which have been on the rise. Perpetrators harm people and institutions they view as a threat to their own beliefs and to society at large.
Many individuals rely on their faith to ground them and bring them hope. Perpetrators are aware of this knowledge and may engage in religious hate crimes because they ultimately want to provoke harm against particular religious groups. So, what should be our response? Church leaders are in full agreement that each act should be met with the same love and forgiveness Jesus extends to all.
“The first thing I did after dealing with the toppled crucifix was I went over and spoke to the students in the school about what happened, telling them that hate never wins,” said Msgr. Cassato. “We are, and must be, a community that continues to share the message of … love, hope, and forgiveness.”
There are some, however, who would like to see stronger action taken. Vandalism, even against a house of worship, is considered a minor crime, one that often goes unpunished because it is rarely recognized as a hate crime. A good number of Catholics believe our faith is targeted far more than others, receives much less attention from law enforcement and government leaders, and has reduced our church buildings, statues, and monuments to a level unworthy of any special significance in society.
After St. Patrick’s Cathedral was defiled by vandals on June 16, 2020, and New Year’s Day 2021, many questioned Cardinal Timothy Dolan. They asked why the Catholic Church does not take a harder line against the people responsible or does not call for condemnation by our government leaders.
Cardinal Dolan was confident in his answer: “As Pope Francis and the world’s great religious traditions … and people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, teach us, reason, love, dialogue are the way — not guns, firebombs, or spray paint. It’s what Jesus said, too, and he faced far worse than graffiti.”
Rita E. Piro is a multi-award-winning freelance writer for the Catholic Media Association and a lifelong resident of the Diocese of Brooklyn.