Over the past decade, Catholic churches and other places of worship have given serious consideration to how they would respond to “active shooter” attacks on their campuses, but the greater prevalence of other types of issues underscores the need to create a broader culture of prevention, safety experts say.
A gunman who held a rabbi and three congregation members hostage at a Texas synagogue last month has drawn attention to domestic terrorism in places of worship. But less high-profile incidents, including a February domestic violence-related shooting in Colorado, and numerous acts of vandalism at Catholic institutions reveal a wider range of threats against places of worship seen as “soft targets” in because of their accessibility to the public.
The words ‘security’ and ‘active shooter’ have become synonymous,” said Mike McCarty, CEO of SafeMinistry Solutions in Danville, Indiana. “When that happens, it’s a big deal,” he said. “You have to be prepared, but we’re dealing with these other issues – vandalism, child sexual abuse – all these other issues are happening week after week after week.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these and other safety issues related to mental health issues, suicidal ideation and domestic violence, and these issues are reaching churches, which reflect the wider community, he said. -he declares.
McCarty and other security experts discussed church security threats and solutions for this article, as well as the benefits of a preventative mindset and security collaboration with other sources. communities and the federal government, which provides advice and grants.
Between 1999 and 2018, there were 275 fatal incidents in Catholic institutions, which represents 14% of all incidents during this period in faith-based organizations, according to statistics compiled by the Faith Based Security Network of Colorado Springs, Colorado, a nonprofit network of security and law enforcement professionals. Lethal force incidents are defined as abductions and attempts, attacks, suspicious deaths, suicides, and lethal force intervention/protection.
Although data is not available on the percentage of U.S. Catholic parishes that have a plan for defending against domestic terrorist attacks, 62% of Protestant pastors surveyed in 2020 had planned a defense against such attacks, according to a Nashville study. Lifestyle Researchwhich conducts surveys on churches and culture.
The FBI defines domestic terrorism as acts dangerous to human life occurring primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, which violate United States or state law and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population; influencing government policy through intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of the government through mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker let British national Malik Faisal Akram into the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, before a morning service on January 15 because he appeared to be in need of shelter, according to ABC News. Akram held Cytron-Walker and three members of the congregation hostage for nearly 11 hours. The hostages eventually reached safety, but Akram was killed by an FBI team. One of the former hostages later said that safety lessons, including active shooter training, helped them through the ordeal, a The source declared. The local Catholic community provided support and shelter to the families of the hostages during the ordeal.
Having a terrorist attack plan is not the same as developing a broader preventive strategy, experts have said. While less than 6% of incidents for all faith-based organizations monitored were motivated by bias, more than 50% are related to thefts, domestic “mishaps” and personal conflicts, said Carl Chinn, president of the Faith Based Security Network.
Violence perpetrated against a spouse or partner sometimes ends up in church and goes unaddressed, Chinn said. “We’ve let domestic violence go unchecked in our American houses of worship under the guise that we need to mediate between the abuser and the victim,” he said. Mediation has limits and churches need to recognize where there is real danger, Chinn said.
On February 4, a woman was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend at the Iglesia Faro de Luz church in Aurora, Colorado. Two of the church’s pastors were shot and wounded in the attack, according to Westword. A few days later, the attacker was killed in a clash with the police.
“What happens is that in these relationships, the survivor-victim makes the decision to leave,” McCarty said. “And what these abusers often do is they look and say, ‘Where can I find them? Maybe they went to the shelter; can I find them at work, or do I find them at church?
Domestic abusers can seem more believable than victims, he said, adding that safety planning should include creating an environment where victims feel safe to seek help.
Children may be threatened by staff, volunteers or other parishioners, or threats may come from outside, as in the case of a 2-year-old boy taken from the crèche at Riverview Baptist Church in Ripplemead , Virginia, last spring by a woman unrelated to the church. She and her boyfriend had previously busted two other churches before deciding to commit the crime at the Ripplemead site, according to a local tv channel.
Regarding preparation for the protection of children and young adults within the Church, in 2019, 3.7 million children, 2.1 million volunteers, 264,847 employees, 170,611 educators, 33,244 priests, 16,204 deacons and 6,482 candidates for ordination have received church-wide safe environment training, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Vandalism is another crime that affects Catholic churches. the USCCB said that since May 2020, at least 120 incidents of arson, destruction and vandalism have occurred at Catholic sites in 31 states and the District of Columbia.
Last month, statues of Our Lady and the Three Children of Fatima were damaged beyond repair on the grounds of the Catholic Church of the Nativity in Burke, Virginia. Neither the perpetrator nor his motive is yet known, said Amber Roseboom, media relations director for the Diocese of Arlington. It was the first time the parish had been hit by vandalism, she said.
The statues were hidden by trees from exterior cameras, a problem the parish is in the process of correcting, Roseboom said.
Vandalism and other crimes can be prevented with the right deterrence strategy, McCarty said. “A lot of times that’s the path of least resistance that a lot of these people who do these things are looking for.”
Crimes on church property are dynamic and sometimes unpredictable, said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, adding that “many different schools of thought can motivate someone to threaten or continue violence, and therefore knowing that some of these factors are avoidable. [is key]; but many of them are very difficult to identify in advance…offsite, so therefore we have to be ready there on the church campus. ”
Churches can prevent some problems instead of just reacting to them, McCarty said. By engaging in prevention, churches can change the way they speak, train and build a safety program that involves working with law enforcement, emergency responders and other churches, a he declared.
They can also seek help from sources such as the US Department of Homeland Security. Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnershipswhich both provides information and facilitates information sharing and referral.
Grants for physical security improvements and activities are also available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nonprofit Security Grant Program.
It’s not enough to attend the occasional safety conference, McCarty said, adding that his company offers an inexpensive self-assessment that can help churches develop a plan. He recommended establishing security rings coming out of the church sanctuary. Security teams and personnel can be trained to recognize unusual behavior and situations before they get inside.
Welcoming unknown newcomers is natural for most places of worship, but it leaves them vulnerable, McConnell said. “They’re not trying to be a country club, they’re not trying to be members just for their major gatherings at least, and so that increases vulnerability,” he said.
Screening visitors with visitor management systems used in some schools wouldn’t work during church services, but protocols based on weekly traffic patterns are helpful, said McCarty, who also works with public schools.
Securing church boundaries does not mean building a fence, but rather increasing preparedness for different situations, Chinn said.
“The definition of safety is the absence of risk,” he said. ” There is no such thing. If there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that we can’t stop them all, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.
Prayer is an essential part of this ongoing effort, Chinn said. “We cannot do this without God. Prayer is one of the most important things.