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Safety and Security in Sacred Places

Preparation, with a plan at hand, is key for Catholic institutions

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At the time this article is being written in the fall of 2019, there have been more than 300 mass shootings that together have killed more than 340 people this year in the United States. These numbers increase nearly daily. Thus far, no Catholic facility has been attacked or involved. Nevertheless, while our nation’s leaders and lawmakers debate the best way to control gun violence, Catholic institutions like churches, schools and shrines remain vulnerable to these heinous acts. Not to be prepared would be ill-advised.

The amount of public information on the subject of violence in our country, especially mass shootings, is overwhelming. This In Focus attempts to surface and highlight certain information that may be applicable to the safety and security of our sacred places. It is not all-inclusive, nor intended to conflict with or replace procedures established by a diocese, law enforcement or other authorities.

Societal Attacks

The statistics claiming over 300 mass shootings in 2019 from the Gun Violence Archive — www.gunviolencearchive.org — defines a mass shooting as four people shot, excluding the shooter. If you drill down into the details of each incident on the GVA website, you discover information so sobering that you find yourself asking, “How is this possible?”

How is it possible that people go out and commit mass murder or any murder? Often those killed are not even known to the killer. This is growing into an epidemic, a cultural epidemic that as a nation we can’t seem to control. Our viewpoints are so diverse that if someone offers a meaningful opinion, a recommended solution, they often get immediate rejection instead of consideration. Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, may have had the best comment about this failure to communicate: “The goal is a Christ-centered conversation, not a quarrel.”

Looking at the plethora of shooting statistics, you can identify gun attacks in recent years involving places of worship in the United States, including:

• Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 27, 2018, 11 killed, shot while at prayer.

• First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017, 26 killed including an unborn baby, 20 wounded; people were in the pews during Sunday morning service.

• Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, Antioch, Tennessee, Sept. 24, 2017, one killed, seven injured; Sunday morning service was ending.

• Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015, nine killed during a weeknight Bible study.

• Sikh Temple, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Aug. 5, 2012, six killed, four wounded while preparing for a religious meal.

Combining these atrocities with other mass shootings in the United States, it is safe to say that every Catholic school, parish and shrine needs to be prepared not just for a shooting situation but for any situation where the intent is to do harm to others. Most Catholic institutions have plans and procedures to respond to a fire or severe weather, but some are lacking in how to deal with acts of purposeful violence. Besides parishes, schools and shrines, places like diocesan offices, seminaries and even monasteries deserve attention.

There are activities common to every parish that also need safety and security consideration: weeknight religious education classes, the Wednesday night choir practice and meetings of various ministries.

During the 2017 mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the killer was attending a Bible study and prayer meeting with others, he pulled out a weapon and killed nine people.

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Vandalism, Destruction in Our Institutions

Numerous Catholic sacred places around the world have experienced deliberate destruction, desecration and vandalism of their treasures. Statues have been spray-painted, heads cut off, even removed from institutions. Tabernacles have been ripped off altars, broken into and sacred Hosts desecrated. Acts of arson are not uncommon. Often these criminal acts take place when an institution is not occupied; thus physical security becomes important in protecting our cherished and sacred items. Electronic locks, alarms, closed-circuit TV and roving law enforcement patrols are a few of the physical security measures that can be implemented. Law enforcement and insurance personnel are likely sources to assist in identifying needed protection.

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Catholic Institutions

Responding to the epidemic of mass shootings, many sacred places have implemented a variety of safety measures ranging from armed guards to covert monitoring. No church leader wants to impinge on the openness and welcoming atmosphere of our sacred places; no one wants to take on a fortress mentality. Unfortunately, in the culture in which we live, we cannot simply look away from this issue and say it won’t happen to us.

The people attending Easter Sunday Mass in 2019 in Sri Lanka didn’t think their parishes would be the target of suicide bombers, but during an attack on churches and other facilities, 250 people were killed. The congregation sitting in the pews at the small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, couldn’t imagine someone would walk in and start killing people.

You can find other such examples. What kind of practical measures can be or have been implemented? The following mostly addresses parish security and safety, but much can be considered or adapted to other Catholic institutions.

How would you react if during your homily you looked up and saw a person in the back of the nave brandishing a gun or other weapon? How about someone suddenly entering a side door or walking quickly down the aisle with a backpack? There are all kinds of scenarios, and only through prior planning can you have an effective response.

Planning and Preparation

Some Catholic parishes have begun preparing for potential emergencies by putting together a safety and security committee designed to deal with various emergencies: fires, severe weather, vandalism, gun violence, acts of domestic terrorism and threats of such actions. Often an initial act of such a committee is to have a meeting with the first responders in their area — that is, law enforcement, fire and medical/EMS personnel — and to seek their cooperation in preparing a security and safety plan.

The planning effort includes how to deal with the threat or prediction of violence. In a previous instance, a Sri Lankan government agency had intelligence that anticipated attacks against Catholic churches and other facilities, but the government failed to act. The result was a coordinated bomb assault killing hundreds of people.

On the other hand, and representing a more proactive example, an annual parish festival was threatened through a handwritten letter and the event was canceled. We can’t live in fear, but any threat has to be taken seriously.

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People mourn the loss of life as they hold a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018. CNS photo/John Altdorfer, Reuters

Who should be on the safety and security committee? Perhaps the parish council is a place to begin. The council can help identify people with needed talents, such as active or retired police officers, firemen, council members, interior safety specialists, medical personnel, military members, security professionals, someone from building and grounds ministry and counselors. These individuals, all volunteers, can come together as the core group to help plan, prepare, train and respond to various emergencies.

In turn, the committee could further identify groups in the parish as the eyes and ears of the church, shrine or school: individuals trained to be vigilant, looking to identify threatening situations and understanding how to react in crucial situations. Along with developing a coordinated plan, experts often recommend that a safety and security assessment of all facilities, guided by first responders, be conducted.

Greeters and ushers at parish Masses are in a key position to spot someone or something clearly out of place. One diocese has implemented diocesanwide training for volunteers among parish greeters and ushers, calling them “the first line of defense.” Their training includes recognizing suspicious activities and individuals, as well as how to respond to different confrontations.

People assisting with the Mass, such as servers, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, lectors, cantors and the choir are often in a position to see the entire nave. They can be instructed on how to react if they notice suspicious activity — for example, someone rushing down the aisle lugging a backpack. Law enforcement or security specialists can provide guidance on the best response to these and other situations.

One important step at the parish is limiting the number of entrances and monitoring them. Once Mass begins, consider locking the doors and opening them by exception. Of course, all doors need to open from the inside. A person might be suspect if they have a backpack, unusual clothes such as a long coat in the summer, someone who appears nervous or intoxicated. The adage, “If you see something, say something,” applies. But then, if something is spotted what do you do? Many such questions can be answered by the professionals. Developing the safety and security plan is most useful in flushing out detailed procedures.

There are simple things that can be considered: making sure facility exit signs are clearly visible; make paths to exits unencumbered; assign someone to direct others what to do in an emergency. Are people available who know the location of, and are able to assist with, first aid kits, defibrillators and fire extinguishers?

Every crisis is likely to be different and guidance from first responders is needed. Should parishioners or occupants run, hide or fight? Keep in mind that there may be people not able to run or even move quickly. Is someone designated to help them? If we hide, who instructs us? Where shall we hide? Rushing the assailant, attempting to use force, is the last resort.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. ‘The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. … The one is intended, the other is not’” (No. 2263). “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility” (No. 2265).

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Members of the Manna Life Center lead an ecumenical prayer service in 2015 at the Neighborhood House in Charleston, South Carolina. CNS photo/Victoria Wain,The Catholic Miscellany

Other Catholic Facilities

Shrines often have a greeter — that is, individuals meeting the public, providing information or conducting tours. They can be instructed on basic ways to react to an act of violence, who to call, how to sound the alarm, confronting the perpetrator or getting away as quickly as possible. The use of surveillance video in a shrine, any institution is of great value. Ideally, someone is positioned to monitor the camera. Some shrines encompass large areas, have gift shops, restaurants and often host special events. The size of the grounds, extra buildings and the number of attendees at events pose special challenges. The potential threat can be exacerbated if the event is at night or cars are lined up at an entrance.

Besides special events at shrines, parishes have bazaars, picnics, fairs and even the annual Corpus Christi day procession that require planning with safety and security in mind.

The protection of our cherished young people in Catholic schools is a high priority for every Catholic. Likely, over the past 20 years, there has been more guidance developed and refined regarding schools than almost any other facility. Yet leaders are challenged to maintain a constant level of preparation and guardedness. As always, including law enforcement and other first responders in school safety and security programs is essential. At the national level, a December 2018 report titled “The Final Report on the Federal Commission on School Safety” (see www.2ed.gov) has been prepared for schools’ consideration. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) websites have extensive recommendations and proven procedures. Another asset for schools is the National Catholic Education Association.

U.S. Bishops’ Response

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has responded to every mass shooting urging gun violence reform from our nation’s leaders. While much attention is given, and rightly so, on how to end gun violence — indeed all violence — our bishops have continually brought attention to an underlying cause — that is, the decay of civility in our society. In the mass killings we see the face of the extremist, of hate, of racism. And it is not a new face; we have seen it for decades.

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As early as 1994, the USCCB sounded a clarion call, addressing how we are failing as a society. Their pastoral message, “Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action,” reflected on the violence in our culture: “We have an obligation to respond. Violence — in our homes, our schools and streets, our nation and world — is destroying the lives, the dignity and hopes of millions of our sisters and brothers.”

The message continued: “We cannot ignore the underlying cultural values that help to create the environment where violence grows: a denial of right and wrong, education that ignores fundamental values, an abandonment of personal responsibility, an excessive and selfish focus on our individual desires, a diminishing sense of obligation to our children and neighbors, a misplaced priority on acquisitions, and media glorification of violence and sexual irresponsibility. In short, we often fail to value life and cherish human beings above our desires for possessions, power and pleasure. Less obvious and less visible is the slow-motion violence of discrimination and poverty, hunger and hopelessness, addiction and self-destructive behavior. … This growing culture of violence reflected in some of the aspects of our public life and entertainment media must be confronted. But it is not just our policies and programming that must change: it is our hearts.”

Little has changed after 25 years.

In the year 2000, the USCCB published an extensive statement on crime and justice entitled, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” which included a call for “sensible regulation of handguns.” This call, which was reiterated in a February 2013 testimony submitted to the U.S. Senate, “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting Our Communities While Respecting the Second Amendment,” recommended:

• Require universal background checks for all gun purchases;

• Limit civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines;

• Make gun trafficking a federal crime and;

• Improve access to mental health care for those who may be prone to violence.

The testimony to Congress asked lawmakers to address “entertainers, especially film producers and video game creators, and encourage them to reflect on how their profit motives have allowed the proliferation of movies, television programs, video games and other entertainment that glorify violence and prey on the insecurities and vulnerabilities of our young people.”

Further, the bishops advocated the need to recognize and deal with mental illness in our communities.

In 2018, the USCCB published “Backgrounder on a Mercy and Peacebuilding Approach to Gun Violence,” recommending specific measures to address gun violence and restating their belief that there should be a minimum age for gun ownership and a ban on “bump stocks.” The bishops urged “the promotion of mercy and peacebuilding in our communities through restorative policies and practices, ongoing encounters and discussions at the parish level regarding violence in communities.” The USCCB has long supported renewal of the now-expired 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.

While not discussed herein, the protection of our beloved priests is mostly administered by their bishop or superior, who has likely prescribed common-sense methods for the priest’s personal protection. One measure that stands out is situational awareness — that is, being aware of your surroundings.

The priest is at the point of the spear, working to ensure the safety of his flock while continuing to reach out to the seeker, the wanderer, the one to whom just the right response may bring about good instead of evil. Guided by Divine Grace, the shepherd continues preaching the Gospel, advocating love over hate, peaceful resolutions, forgiveness and extolling the faithful to pray for our nation. 

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.

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Common Practices Regarding Safety and Security

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There is no one size fits all in dealing with emergencies or acts of violence. But there are some proven security and safety practices that may be considered. They all need constant review and enhancement.

• Prepare a plan to deal with emergencies: train, discuss, practice.

• Ensure individuals know how to notify first responders.

• Reduce the number of and monitor facility entries.

• Establish identification methods for everyone who works in or needs repeated access to a facility — that is, staff, students.

• Seek ways to monitor parking areas, as appropriate.

• Ensure the physical security of buildings with means such as electronic locks, video cameras.

• Have a policy of no unattended boxes, bags, briefcases.

• Train individuals who meet the public in basic threat recognition and response procedures.

• Ensure communications exist between different locations in the facility.

• Develop lockdown procedures.

• Develop bomb-threat procedures.

• Conduct safety and security assessments.

• Ascertain what’s been done at other parishes/Catholic institutions.

• Confirm legality of actions.

Certain of these practices are identified at the federal government level such as by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Two of their many documents, available through their websites, provide guidance to places of worship:

Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship

This publication recognizes that instituting safety and security procedures in religious institutions is a sensitive topic: “There is no single answer for what to do, but a survival mindset can increase the odds of surviving. As appropriate of a house of worship’s congregation, it may be valuable to schedule a time for an open discussion regarding the topic [active shooter]. Though some congregants or staff may find the conversation uncomfortable, they may also find it reassuring to know that as a whole their house of worship is thinking about how best to deal with this situation.”

Houses of Worship Security Practices Guide, May 2013.

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