(RNS) – It was after two Catholic churches were burnt down last summer, one in Southern California and another in Florida, that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decided to begin documenting and to track vandalism at Catholic sites across the country.
The two fires occurred on the same morning: July 11, 2020. One destroyed the roof of the historic Mission San Gabriel – the fourth in a series of missions across California that Father Junipero Serra founded during the time of Spanish colonization. The other ignited in the Queen of Peace Catholic Church as parishioners prepared for mass in Ocala, Florida.
No one was hurt, but Aaron M. Weldon – of the USCCB’s Office of Religious Freedom – said the fires were “the impetus for us to start monitoring these kinds of events.”
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Since then, the USCCB has tracked more than 105 incidents of vandalism at Catholic sites in the United States, including arson, graffiti and disfigured statues. The organization has recorded information on such incidents dating back to May 2020, but it does not yet have a detailed breakdown that categorizes the different types of vandalism.
The USCCB has dedicated a page on its website listing vandalism news by month.
In California, statues of Father Junipero Serra were overturned to protest what activists have called Native American slavery. Monument to ‘babies whose lives end in abortion’ toppled at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Bloomingburg, New York. The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, Colorado, was recently marked with graffiti saying “Satan lives here” and including references to “child rapists”.
While these incidents highlight specific issues – the colonization of Indigenous peoples, the church’s stance on abortion, priest abuse scandals – Weldon said there were not always messages left on vandalized Catholic sites. He said damaged statues, such as monuments to Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, constitute a large part of the vandalism they have documented.
“When you talk about a statue being broken, it’s a little hard to know what’s going on. There isn’t really a message in there, ”he said. “Did they choose the Catholic Church, or is it just that our religious symbols are so visible that they make them an easy target? “
“We’re kind of working to learn more about what’s going on,” Weldon said.
Through an interfaith effort, the USCCB advocated for more funding from FEMA’s nonprofit security grants program to improve security measures in their buildings. “Because it’s not just Catholic churches that have to deal with this,” Weldon said. Jewish places of worship, Weldon said, “face this worse than we do.”
New FBI Statistics the number of hate crimes (8,263) reported in FY2020 was the highest since 2001. Hate crimes motivated by religious bias accounted for 1,244 offenses, and more than half (683) were anti-Semitic.
While only 73 were anti-Catholic hate crimes, this represents an annual increase since 2013. There were 64 anti-Catholic hate crimes reported in 2019 and 51 in 2018, according to FBI data.
For Brian Levin – director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino – the sheer volume of Catholic websites can make these spaces easy targets if someone wants to make a statement against Catholicism or religion in general.
“Catholics are the most represented religious faith in the United States,” Levin said.
But there is a mix of issues that could be contributing to the multi-year increase in anti-Catholic hate crimes, Levin said.
The fact that President Joe Biden is Catholic “makes Catholicism more covered in general, as well as conflicts within the particular faith,” Levin said.
In addition, the Catholic Church recently made headlines. Anonymous graves have been found in a number of residential schools operated by Catholic orders or dioceses in Canada. And in the United States, bishops and other Catholics have sought to restrict communion to pro-choice politicians because of their stance on abortion.
Combine that with the spread of religious conspiracy theories, an increase in religious skepticism and closures due to COVID-19, and a Catholic church could be the closest place for a “potential offender” to strike, he said. Levin said.
In Colorado, the Archdiocese of Denver keeps its own tally and has documented at least 25 parishes or places of ministry that, since February 2020, have been the target of vandalism, destruction of property or theft, said Mark Haas, door – speech of the archdiocese.
This includes broken windows, damaged and disfigured statues, graffiti, attempted arson, stolen religious objects, break-ins and thefts, Haas said. More than 10 incidents have occurred in the past six months.
“Some of these incidents clearly targeted the Catholic Church, but not all,” according to a statement provided by Haas. “The number could be higher because some minor incidents are not always reported. “
Haas said some of the incidents documented by the diocese had not been included in the USCCB’s file, including a theft that appeared to be “for profit.”
“We continue to pray for the conversion of those who commit acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols,” the statement said.
But for a handful of protesters in northern California who shot down a Serra monument last year on Indigenous Peoples Day, it “was an act of healing,” said Morning Star Gali, a member of the Ajumawi group of the Pit River tribe. Press service in a previous interview. Gali defended the protesters, known as “Indigenous Peoples 5,” who face charges of vandalism.
“This is an opportunity for them to help rectify the problems of the past and the violence for which the church is responsible,” said Gali, project director for Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples.
The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore J. Cordileone, hailed the accusations as a “watershed moment for Catholics”. It does not appear that other protesters who knocked down or vandalized statues in Serra have been charged.
In downtown Los Angeles, the Italian Catholic Church of St. Peter has been vandalized October 11 with graffiti indicating “STOP COLONIZING OUR LAND” and “Land Back”. Red paint splattered on the facade of the church, which was built in 1904. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime.
Rev. Fernando Cuevas Preciado, pastor of St. Peter’s, said he believed those responsible for the vandalism, which occurred on Indigenous Peoples Day, “were using the church to protest.”
“It was not something against the Catholic Church,” he said.
For Preciado, it seems the vandalism was likely linked to Columbus Day and what Christopher Columbus, who was Italian, represents. While Columbus was Italian, his travels were sponsored by Spain.
Preciado said vandalism of a church or monument should not be a form of protest.
“For me, this is a sign of intolerance that we see as a society, a lack of values,” he said. “I believe in dialogue and harmony.