String of church break-ins attributed to tough economy

BRAINTREE -- Pastors of some of Boston's Catholic churches, as well an archdiocesan official, are attributing this year's string of church robberies and vandalism to the harsh economic climate.

Joe McEnness, executive director of the archdiocese's Risk Management Office, said that there have been 15 cases of church robbery or vandalism since September, the bulk of which have occurred in urban areas around Boston.

McEnness said a majority of damage to targeted churches has been due to vandalism, while the amount of money stolen from donation boxes has been "minimal."

He attributes the break-ins to people feeling financial pressure as Christmas approaches as well as the sour economy.

Father Jack Ahern of St. Ambrose Parish in Dorchester shares that assessment and described his own parish's recent experience with a break-in.

Father Ahern said he was sleeping in his rectory recently and awoke around 5 a.m. to discover a thief absconding with his ring, pectoral cross, watch and money.

He is also the pastor of Blessed Mother Teresa and St. Peter Parishes, also in Dorchester, both hit by vandals recently. He said St. Peter's suffered about $8,000 in damage, including a broken stained-glass window and damage to the tabernacle.

Father Ahern said he does not think the incidents were an "attack on the Church," but rather due to circumstances resulting from the economy.

"There are levels of desperation we haven't seen in awhile," Father Ahern said.

"I think I'm more saddened," Father Ahern said. "I don't have a sense of being violated."

Nearby St. Brendan Church was also recently targeted.

Father John Connolly, the church's pastor, said that the rectory was broken into in October. He referred to the string of recent incidents at Boston churches as "crimes of opportunity."

St. Brendan's was recently targeted a second time. On Sunday morning, Nov. 14, a parish employee spotted suspicious activity near the church sacristy as Mass was being celebrated. The employee alerted police, who subsequently arrested Michael Bagley, 44, of South Boston and charged him with attempted breaking and entering of the parish rectory.

Bagley was also charged with breaking and entering at Blessed Mother Teresa.

Later in the month, Boston police took another man into custody for church burglaries.

Richard Shiner, 44, of Boston, was arrested Nov. 29 and charged with incidents at St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston and St. Leonard's Church in the North End. By Dec. 6, Shiner was charged with other incidents at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Roxbury (Mission Church), All Saints Church and St. Ann's Church in Dorchester, and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

An investigation of a break-in at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine is still ongoing, according BPD spokesperson Elaine Driscoll.

McEnness said that the volume of incidents is significantly higher than in years past, although around Thanksgiving and Christmas there is always an increase in such occurrences. Last year, McEnness said there were three reported robberies of churches in the archdiocese.

Parishes have worked closely with the Boston police and the Archdiocese of Boston's risk management office to take precautions that will hopefully curtail such activity in the future.

McEnness said the Risk Management Office distributed a risk alert flier to parishes in October and posted it on the archdiocese's web site. McEnness suggested that parishes ensure they have sufficient lighting, request the assistance of local police, speak with parishioners and neighbors about neighborhood watches and closely monitor the property.

He said his office provides site visits to help parishes assess their security. He said over the course of this year the office has conducted about 30 to 40 visits.