Priests turned away from bombing site 'understand' police decision

BOSTON -- Two priests turned away from entering the scene of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, April 15, said they understand the actions of the police in the heat of the moment.

After two bombs exploded near the finish line, leaving three people dead and wounding more than 260 others, the priests rushed toward the scene from St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine on Boylston Street, just over a half mile from the marathon finish line.

Father Tom Carzon, OMV, director of seminarians for the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, reached out to The Pilot after he saw media coverage surrounding their experience.

"The twist that this story has taken in some places just doesn't reflect my experience on that day at all," he said.

Father Carzon said he felt that media reports portraying a conflict between priests and police as a general reality in Boston mischaracterized the situation, and said he understood the police turning people back, including clergy, in light of potential danger closer to the finish line.

"They were trying to keep safe a very unstable, chaotic area. Even the police who were there on the perimeter, they had no idea what was behind them. All they knew was that they needed to clear out the area, and they had no idea how much they themselves were standing in harm's way," Father Carzon said.

Father Carzon said he was stopped at a police line at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street, and he could not see victims or the explosion.

"I could not see what had happened on Boylston Street. It was probably about a half mile away," he said.

After leaving as instructed by the police, Father Carzon said he began providing pastoral care, on-the-spot counseling and any other help he could for those in the area.

"Most importantly, we were just there for people to stop by and talk about what they had seen, what they had heard, and to pray with people," he said.

Father Carzon noted that officers and soldiers he encountered in the following days seemed appreciative when he told them that he would pray for them.

"Here these men and women were just as affected as everybody by the trauma that we have all been through. They stood fast and stood their ground in a very difficult situation," he said.

He also noted that after a long manhunt for suspects in the bombing, officers provided traffic control, security, and a public presence at church events throughout the city in the following days, including a eucharistic procession in the North End the day after the manhunt.

"This eucharistic procession took place with the support of the Boston Police, who must have been very tired, weary, in a sense of stress from the previous day's activity, and yet here they were assisting with this beautiful expression of the faith," Father Carzon said.

Two of the victims who died at the bombings, 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester and Krystle Campbell, 29, a Medford native, were Catholics. Coverage noted the importance of the anointing of the sick, formerly called extreme unction, for Catholics in times of injury or facing death.

In performing the sacrament, a priest anoints the recipient with oils and calls for God to alleviate the suffering of the victim.

According to chaplaincy coordinators at various hospitals, contacted by The Pilot in the days after the bombings including Mass. General Hospital, Catholic chaplains stood ready to administer sacraments as patients arrived in hospitals.

MGH officials said the hospital had three additional Catholic priests on site to administer sacraments to Catholics at the first opportunity while they were admitted and stabilized.

Father Carzon said he was not close enough to the scene to administer the sacrament when the police stopped him and did not have oils with him when he left the shrine.

Another priest turned away by police did have oils with him when he left St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine that day. Father John Wykes, OMV, who normally serves as director of a chapel run by the order in the Prudential Center, left a meeting with his provincial at the shrine and rushed toward the scene following the bombings.

Father Wykes also said the police turned him away at the corner of Massachusetts Ave. and Boylston Street. When he arrived at the intersection, the police were already trying to keep people from entering the scene.

"I went up closer to the two police officers. I said, 'I'm a priest.' I showed them my collar and they said, 'Get back.' I said, 'I have oil of the sick and I would like to see if I can help.' One of them said, 'What do you think, Father? What do you think?' Then he said, 'Get back.' So, I turned around and walked away," he said.

He also acknowledged that the response from police in that situation was understandable.

"I think they were just trying to get everyone away," he said.

Father Wykes said he thinks the decision by officers in the moment to turn the priests away came as a mixture of a cultural shift in the view of priests as first responders and a reaction to a chaotic situation that he called "pandemonium, even if there is no bomb, on Patriot's Day."

"They were confronted with an extremely difficult situation, trying to secure an area where there were just thousands and thousands of people, and trying desperately and very quickly to get those people out of the area before any more bombs blew up. So, I understand the great difficulty that they went through in trying to protect people. But, that said, I think that there was a time when if you had a collar you were just let in to any kind of emergency or difficult situation," he said.

He said he would like to see a level of cooperation between priests and police, whereby in the future priests could register or have an ID to present to police in similar circumstances.

"I take my hat off to the police for doing such a wonderful and thorough job on that day, and all the next days as well actually, in trying to secure the area and also in terms of this horrible manhunt, which included the horrifying exchange of gunfire and throwing of explosives," he said.

"I certainly admire their work, but I look forward to working with them as an emergency responder if at all possible," Father Wykes said.

A Boston Police Department media affairs officer told The Pilot that the priority of officers on the scene was to protect bystanders, including priests, and to follow an order given at the time to allow no more people into the area because of the potential of additional explosions.