Diocesan and parish leaders beef up preparedness and security efforts following a series of criminal strikes against local churches
By Natalie Romano
A priest shot, a stained glass window smashed, a church set on fire, and a parish tagged with hate speech.
These incidents are all part of a summer crime wave that has targeted Catholic churches and personnel in the Diocese of San Bernardino.
During the last three months, at least four parishes and one priest came under siege, mirroring a worldwide surge in crimes against the Church. Perhaps the most shocking, a paintball assault on Father Zhaojun “Jerome” Bai, S.V.D., in Riverside on August 2nd.
“I felt hurt. I saw blood,” Fr. Bai describes the moment he was violently struck.
Having just celebrated the anniversary of a fellow S.V.D. priest, Fr. Bai was walking to his car parked near Queen of Angels Church when another vehicle pulled up from behind.
“I heard four or five sounds. I thought it was gunshots.”
Fr. Bai was hit in the eyes, causing his glasses to shatter and cut his face. He ran back to the parish for help and ultimately received stitches for his injuries.
Police say six other people were hit as the shooters rampaged across Riverside. At press time, no arrests had been made.
This level of violence is not surprising says Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Emergency Operations Collaborative for the Diocese. She believes we’re living in hostile times.
“There’s so much pent up anger today and we’ve developed into a society that doesn’t have civility and restraint,” says Gallant. “The political environment that we’re in now does not provide good leadership or examples on either side. As a society, I think we’re losing a moral compass.”
In late August, vandals hurled a large rock through a stained glass window at St. Bernardine Church in San Bernardino and scratched anti-Catholic language on its front sign. Vandals also targeted La Quinta’s St. Francis of Assisi in July, scrawling occult symbols in the parish hall and kitchen. Just the month before, Queen of Angels, still enjoying its new 1,600-seat church, was hit. The anti-Catholic graffiti was discovered by a frightened Father Beni Leu, S.V.D., parish pastor.
“I was afraid because maybe the people who did the vandalism were still there,” he explains.
Fr. Leu quickly got help, but not before parishioners witnessed the damage. He says the criminals marked the church both physically and emotionally.
“Some of the parishioners were very sad. They asked ‘Why did they do this? Why did this happen? Why do they hate us?’ ”
The outcry was similar following an arson at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in San Bernardino. A side door of the church was lit on fire in the early hours of July 17th.
“The people were surprised. They couldn’t believe someone would attempt to do this,” says Father Rogelio Gonzalez. The pastor was also taken aback since he’d only been there two weeks.
“I don’t think I have any enemies that followed me here,” Fr. Gonzalez laughs then continues more seriously. “Well you know, San Bernardino is a hard place,” he says in reference to local crime and poverty.
But his parishioners rallied in support of their church.
“They were more than willing to do whatever was necessary to fix the door,” Fr. Gonzalez said. “I had people coming forward saying ‘Father, I would like to give a donation to fix the door,’ or, ‘I’m a painter and I can fix the door.’
“In a sense, people had a feeling of unity that this was an attack on us and we’re going to pull together and find a solution to this.”
Lt. Mike Madden of the San Bernardino Police Department says arson investigators are on the case and the FBI has been notified because it’s a potential hate crime.
The local outbreak of crimes against the Church follows a global pattern of attacks against Catholics, from the recent firebombing of the iconic Church of National Gratitude in Chile to the widespread murder of priests in Mexico (19 since 2012) to a sharp rise in anti-Catholic assaults in Scotland to the kidnapping of priests throughout Africa. Following recent terrorist attacks in Spain, ISIS leaders have threatened the Vatican as their next target.
On the national front, Gallant says the Church’s outspokenness on issues like abortion and immigration can cause anger all across the political spectrum, and could be a motivating factor in some attacks that have occurred.
“People knew we had these views and opinions but in the last decade or so we’ve become active in putting it out there, not just talking among our own,” she says. “Pope Francis is encouraging that kind of leadership.”
Meanwhile, Gallant is encouraging local parishes to protect themselves in light of recent attacks. She’s traveled around the Diocese, preparing churches and schools for disaster, natural or manmade. She says the comprehensive training was already put to good use when a man showed up at a priest’s home last year.
“He went up to the door and actually told the priest he had a gun and was going to kill him,” Gallant says. “Because the priest had taken the training and knew what to do, he was able to talk him down.”
Gallant knows that sounds scary but she says don’t get alarmed, get ready. She calls it “prayer with pro-action.”
“We are faith-based. We practice social justice, charity, acts of mercy, but let’s be responsible Christian citizens. You need not only to help yourself but with what we’re teaching, you could save other people.”
Gallant suggests parishioners take the training classes when offered. They’re advertised in church bulletins and open to anyone. She also says speak up, ask parish leaders if they’re prepared. Fr. Leu is ready now. He took immediate action following the defacing of his parish.
“We formed a committee for security and we put up cameras around the church and parking lot,” he explains.
That’s not possible yet at Our Lady of the Assumption, says Fr. Gonzalez.
“Of course we would like to have some security cameras, extra lighting, but that’s out of our budget. As soon as we have the opportunity, we’re going to do it. I’m making people aware so they’re more on the lookout. If they see something suspicious they should report it to the police. That’s our best bet.”
Looking forward, Gallant wants to offer vicariate-wide training sessions and create a new position, the pastoral care chaplain. That person would provide post-trauma support when victims feel vulnerable.
Fr. Bai understands that need more than most.
“Now, in the evening if I go outside, walk in the street, I feel concerned about my safety. It’s not the scar outside, it’s something mental inside.”
But the priest won’t be deterred from his ministry as Parochial Vicar at St. Catherine of Siena in Rialto. He returned to his office the day after the assault, despite family pleas to return to his native China.
“We can suffer for the faith, for what we believe,” he says. “A long time ago, missionaries would go to other countries and get killed. It’s noble. I’m lucky I can share this mark as a missionary.”
Fr. Bai says he forgives his assailants and can now even joke about it.
“The stitches just removed the wrinkles around my eyes,” he laughs. “It makes me look younger.”
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.