Pastor Msgr. David Cassato: ‘I’m just sick over it’
BENSONHURST — As police continued their investigation of the vandalism at St. Athanasius Church — in which a person scaled a fence and knocked a crucifix to the ground — the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force released a photo of the man they are looking for in connection with the attack.
The incident is being investigated as a possible anti-Catholic hate crime.
Stunned church workers discovered the crucifix, which had a statue of Jesus Christ mounted on it, lying on the ground outside the church at 7 a.m. on Friday, May 14, investigators said.
The vandal also took down, and burned, an American flag that was hanging outside a building on church property, damaging a fence as well, police said.
The new photo, released on May 18, shows a man in a gray hooded sweatshirt, khaki pants, and a black face mask walking on a sidewalk. Police had earlier released a video of a person of interest.
St. Athanasius pastor Msgr. David Cassato said he was informed of the vandalism by a parishioner around 8:20 a.m. on Friday.
“The parishioner came running over to me when I was going over to the school and said, ‘Did you see this?’ ” Msgr. Cassato said. “I went over. And then I saw it.”
Msgr. Cassato said the vandal must have climbed over the fence — which is always securely locked — to gain access to the crucifix.
“The police are checking security cameras. We have no idea why anybody would do something like this,” he said. “Is it an attack on the church? Is it an attack on society? It’s so hard to figure.”
Msgr. Cassato, an NYPD chaplain, said a security camera mounted across the street from the church captured an image of a man walking in front of the church carrying a hatchet.
“I’m just sick over it,” he said. “When I looked at the face of Jesus smacked down and on the ground, what came to my mind was, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ I could almost cry because it’s such an offense.”
Pictures of the aftermath of the vandalism were posted to the church’s Facebook page Friday morning, along with a statement decrying the incident.
“We are deeply saddened to inform you that the cross on our church property was vandalized last night. This exhibition of violence and religious hatred is very disturbing,” the statement reads. “This is definitely an offensive act not only to our parish but to the Catholic Church! We ask our political leaders to act on the issue of religious hate crime ASAP! This is unacceptable!”
But the spirit of forgiveness was also evident on the St. Athanasius Facebook page, in a statement addressed to the vandal that read, “We forgive you, and we are praying for you!”
Adding to Msgr. Cassato’s sorrow is that he had the crucifix placed there 11 years ago as a tribute to his late mother, Fay, who died in 2009.
Parishioners gathered for a prayer service outside the church on Friday evening.
“Hatred can never win!” read a statement on the church’s Facebook page advertising the service. Parishioners also started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money to repair the crucifix. So far, the campaign has raised more than $3,000.
An NYPD spokesman said the vandalism took place at approximately 1:36 a.m. It is under investigation by the 62nd Precinct and is being referred to the Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force.
The NYPD has released a surveillance video of the man believed to be responsible for the crime, and is asking anyone with information about the incident to contact its Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS.
In a May 15 statement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo described the vandalism as “acts of hate.”
“I am disgusted to learn that St. Athanasius Church, a historically Italian American place of worship in Brooklyn, has been vandalized,” Cuomo said. “These acts of hate should offend and outrage every New Yorker, and I want the Bensonhurst community to know we will do everything we can to bring the cowardly vandals responsible for this to justice.”
The incident happened at a time of heightened concern over acts of vandalism at houses of worship in New York City, including Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues, and Islamic mosques.
Since 2016, there have been 12 churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn — seven in Brooklyn and five in Queens — that have filed insurance claims due to vandalism.
Councilman Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, who is a pastor at New Life Protestant Church in that borough, has introduced legislation in the City Council that would double the fine for vandalizing a house of worship from $500 to $1,000 — a fine that would be imposed on top of criminal charges.
He called such attacks a form of intimidation and persecution.
“We want to send a message that it’s unacceptable to attack a house of worship,” Cabrera told Currents News.
The story has been updated.