Federal investigators are committed to finding the people responsible for a rash of fires at black Southern churches even if that means giving church members lie-detector tests and searching church records, a top Justice Department official said Sunday.
About 30 pastors from burned-out churches met with Attorney General Janet Reno and other officials Sunday to voice their dissatisfaction with federal, state and local investigations, which they say have focused more on the church members and clergy than on outside suspects.Reno told the pastors about the Church Arson Task Force, a joint effort of the Treasury and Justice departments, which will report to President Clinton about the status of the church fire investigations.
"The entire administration is committed to putting an end to these fires, and we will continue to purse these matters vigorously," Reno said in a statement after the meeting. "Acts of violence against the spiritual centers of our communities must be stopped. We will devote whatever resources are necessary to solve these crimes."
At a news conference Monday, Justice and Treasury officials are expected to describe ways to prevent church fires and help assuage frustrated pastors after the ministers meet with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
During the meeting, officials also answered complaints that investigators have unfairly made church members targets.
"Our responsibility is to solve these crimes, and we are determined to do that. That includes whatever investigative tools are at our disposal and then some," Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition."
Investigators have required lie-detector tests, issued subpoenas for church records and told congregations that everyone is a suspect, complained the Rev. Mac Charles Jones of the National Council of Churches. The New York-based ecumenical group has worked to draw attention to the more than 30 fires at predominantly black Southern churches in the past 18 months.
"The sense of dissatisfaction (among pastors) is not around the amount of the investigation, but the sense of intimidation that they feel from investigators," Jones said Sunday on CNN. "They feel that they are the targets of the investigation. What has happened is the victims have also become the suspects."
Patrick said he hoped Sunday afternoon's meeting with the pastors would lead to a better understanding about the fires and the investigation.
"It's incumbent on our investigators to be sensitive in their (investigation) at the same time that they are vigorous and determined," Patrick said.
The number of attacks at black churches nationwide jumped from three each year from fiscal 1992 through 1994, to six in fiscal 1995, and at least 22 since Sept. 30, 1995, federal law enforcement officials said last month.