Church vandalism is on the rise. Here’s how congregations heal

Since May 2020, there have been at least 100 violent incidents affecting U.S. Catholic congregations

André Sicard was studying when he first saw the pictures. His church’s beloved statue of St. Therese was off its pedestal and lying, beheaded, on the ground.

Memories from childhood worship services flashed through his mind. At Christmas, at Easter, at his First Communion, that statue had watched over him with its white, marble eyes.

“It had always been there. It’s what you saw when you came in and out. To see it broken ... my stomach just dropped,” said Sicard, who is in Washington, D.C., studying to be a priest for the Diocese of Salt Lake City and still calls St. Therese of the Child Jesus Catholic Church in Midvale, Utah, his home parish.

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Sicard and other members of the faith community still don’t know exactly who toppled the statue in September last year. The attack came amid a protracted struggle with a group of people trying to sleep on church grounds.

What they do know is that the vandalism they experienced is far from unique. Since May 2020, there have been at least 100 such attacks on U.S. Catholic congregations.

“These incidents of vandalism have ranged from the tragic to the obscene, from the transparent to the inexplicable. There remains much we do not know about this phenomenon, but at a minimum, they underscore that our society is in sore need of God’s grace,” read an Oct. 14 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has observed a similar surge in violence over the past two years, primarily in the U.S. and Canada, according to Kelly Smoot, a media relations manager for the church.

She noted that Latter-day Saints, like other people of faith, have strong ties to their meetinghouses.

“Houses of worship are important to communities all around the world as locations for community gathering, learning, recreation and for public and private worship,” Smoot said.

Vandals chopped down 13 trees at the Riverton Copperview Stake on June 24, 2004. | Ryan Long, Deseret News

Recently released FBI data shows that hate crimes, in general, have become more common in the past two years.

In the 2020 fiscal year, which spanned from October 2019 to September 2020, law enforcement agencies across the country reported 8,263 criminal incidents and 11,129 related offenses that were motivated by bias. The total number of hate crimes in the reporting period was higher than it’s been in two decades.

Among the 8,052 “single-bias incidents” tracked by the FBI, 13.3% were motivated by faith-related beliefs. Additionally, just over 3% of the recorded hate crimes took place at houses of worship.

Brian Levin, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, appeared on the “Axios Today” podcast on Oct. 26 to discuss these trends. The increase in vandalism, arson and other kinds of attacks on churches likely stems from growing distrust of civic institutions, he said.

“The communal institutions which held us together traditionally, like academia, the arms of government, the media, the medical establishment and now religious institutions, are held in low esteem relative to decades prior,” Levin said.

In response to rising violence, faith leaders are calling on the government to do more to keep houses of worship safe. On Oct. 27, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America sent a letter to national policymakers asking them to expand the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

“The NSGP is currently funded at $180 million, which left more than half of grant applicants empty-handed during FY 2021,” the organization noted in a statement accompanying the letter.

In addition to considering increasing the funding for this program, the Senate is currently weighing a bill that would help houses of worship establish better security procedures. The Pray Safe Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would create a federal clearinghouse for safety related information.

“The threats and senseless attacks on faith-based organizations and houses of worship we’re seeing across our country, in my opinion, are attacks on all of our values,” Portman said in July.

Latter-day Saint church members in Santaquin work to clear out usable items Dec. 15, 2011, from their church after an overnight fire that authorities have listed as arson. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In the absence of more support from the government, churches lean on their community for help after a vandalism incident or other type of attack.

Sicard said he was blown away by the number of people who offered to help repair his parish’s statue or pay for a new one in the weeks after the disturbing event.

“In the midst of a nightmare, the people who came out to help us turned the situation into a blessing for the parish,” he said.

St. Therese of the Child Jesus Catholic Church received a new statue from Juan Diego Catholic High School and used monetary donations from others to guard against future attacks. There’s now more lighting on the parish grounds, as well as more security cameras and fencing.

“This sort of revamped our whole perception of security,” Sicard said.

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In August, many of the people who made these adjustments possible visited the church for a dedication ceremony. The event was an opportunity to reflect on what the parish had been through and turn over a new leaf, Sicard said.

“It was uplifting to see so many people come out and to see how beautiful everything ended up,” he said.

Although the gathering focused on the church’s new St. Therese statue, which sits on a pedestal outside surrounded by flowers, the old one played a role, too. Attendees were invited to view the broken pieces and recall the attack.

“We’re keeping (the old statue) as a reminder of how far we’ve come,” Sicard said. “Maybe one day we might fix it or find somebody who can.”

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