A 13-year-old white girl was arrested in the burning of a black church in North Carolina, even as the Clinton administration sought to reassure black ministers of efforts to solve the series of church blazes.
The Charlotte girl was picked up Sunday night in connection with a fire Thursday at the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian church in Charlotte. A hearing in juvenile court has not been scheduled.The arrest came as authorities were questioning three white men in connection with a suspicious fire that damaged a black church in the northern Texas city of Greenville.
The cause of the fire Sunday night at the New Light House of Prayer was undetermined. A fire at a separate church building was reported about 4 a.m., three hours after the suspects were detained by police, said Fire Chief Robert Wood, who termed both blazes "acts of local vandalism."
Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin Monday pledged to black ministers gathered in Washington that federal investigators would work to win the trust of the black community.
James Johnson, assistant Treasury secretary for enforcement, said the North Caroline juvenile had been charged with violation of a state statute covering the burning of churches.
"Personally I feel a deep sense of sorrow for a 13-year-old child not only because she ruined a church building but that she may also have ruined her life," said Larry Hill, pastor of Matthews-Murkland.
The announcement of the arrest in the North Carolina case came following a meeting Rubin had Monday with 60 black ministers to discuss the federal response to the rash of church burnings.
Rubin repeated assurances President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno had made over the weekend that the FBI and Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms would aggressively investigate the fires.
"We will not be satisfied until 100 percent of the arson cases are solved and the perpetrators brought to justice," Rubin said. "Whatever it takes, however long and whomever is responsible."
Rubin said the administration was concerned about complaints the ministers raised in the meeting that federal investigators had acted improperly.
"I have no doubt that there have been instances of insensitivity," Rubin said. "We must build trust."
The Rev. Mac Charles Jones of the National Council of Churches in Christ said that there was a history of mistrust in the black community with the FBI and the ATF and agents needed to understand that.
"Pastors feel that instead of being questioned they have been interrogated," he said at a joint news conference with Rubin.
Both Rubin and Jones said they believed trust would be built as federal officials made more arrests in the cases. Suspicious fires have struck 30 Southern churches in the past 18 months.
Rubin said he repeated assurances during his meeting that President Clinton had made in his Saturday radio address that the administration would devote extensive resources through a high-level government task force to solving the fires.
"This administration will do everything in our power to get to the bottom of these fires," Rubin said. "Few crimes are as sensitive or as important as he torching of our places of worship."
Reno meet with the ministers on Sunday and officials said more than 200 federal agents are now involved in the investigation.
More than 100 people, including a 40-member choir and more than 30 visiting ministers, had sung gospel songs, displayed charred remains from their church buildings and prayed Sunday night at a service in a church near Capitol Hill.
"Many, if not most of these fires are driven by racial hostility. That's got to be faced," Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said today on CBS.
The council of churches, a New York-based interdenominational group, arranged the meetings with the federal officials, to let pastors vent frustrations with the fire investigations, which they say have focused more on the church members and clergy than on outside suspects.
"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's "Late Edition With Frank Sesno."
"They feel that they are the targets of the investigation. What has happened is the victims have also become the suspects," Jones said. He cited examples of investigators requiring lie-detector tests to pastors, issuing subpoenas for church records and telling congregations that everyone is a suspect.
The Council, meanwhile, announced it was starting a $2-million fund-raising campaign to help rebuild predominantly black churches that had been burned through the South.
The Center for Democratic Renewal, a liberal group that researches issues of racism, issued what it termed a preliminary report on church burnings that have taken place over the past six years. It concluded that in more than a half-dozen cases suspects or those convicted of the fires had links to the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist organizations.
"This report should answer the question" about whether race is a factor in some of the burnings, said Rose Johnson, executive director of the Center.
Investigators have not uncovered a national conspiracy by racists behind the fires, although seven people have been arrested in connection with five fires.
Two of the fires under investigation occurred within the past week, in Greensboro, Ala., and Charlotte, N.C. Earlier ones were in Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia and Georgia.