Taking seriously attacks on churches and pro-life institutions
On Sept. 6, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), a Washington DC-based think tank dedicated to achieving broad acceptance of religious liberty as a fundamental right across the globe, released a troubling but important new study on attacks against religious freedom in the United States entitled Religious Pro-Life Americans Under Attack: A Threat Assessment of Post-Dobbs America.
Researched and written by a former FBI counterterrorism and intelligence expert, it's a snapshot of a larger multi-year Investigative Report into domestic attacks on religious freedom that will be released next year.
The Threat Assessment was conducted and published not only because of a surge of attacks against religious and faith-based institutions since 2020 but as a "public-interest imperative" because, the Assessment states, "government officials, law enforcement agencies, and the media have too often responded inadequately or not at all" to these attacks.
The report documents that since May 28, 2020, there have been 174 crimes against Catholic Churches, schools and apostolates, including four assaults against persons, 26 incidents of arson, 76 incidents of the desecration of statues, 66 incidents of the destruction of property, 16 incidents of theft, and 81 incidents of graffiti. These have taken place across 38 states and the District of Columbia.
Prior to the May 2, 2022, release of the draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that on June 24 would overturn Roe v. Wade, attacks against Catholic sites have increased in the country from an average of one every five days to one every three. Thirty-two Catholic churches have been vandalized since the Dobbs leak, including 17 churches, where the vandals made clear their pro-abortion motivation through graffiti messages or by damaging pro-life memorials.
The day after Dobbs was published, arsonists burned to ashes St. Colman Catholic Church in Shady Spring, West Virginia, where faithful had worshipped for 145 years. Five days later, arsonists attacked St. Anthony of Padua School in Lorain, Ohio, inflicting about $1 million in damage.
This pattern of assaults against Catholic institutions was addressed in January on behalf of the U.S. Bishops by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty.
"For nearly two years," he said, "the U.S. bishops have noticed a disturbing trend of Catholic churches being vandalized and statues being smashed. ... An attack on a house of worship is certainly an assault on the particular community that gathers there. It is also an attack on the founding principle of America as a place where all people can practice their faith freely. And it is an attack on the human spirit, which yearns to know the truth about God and how to act in light of the truth." He also noted the harm such attacks wreak on the social fabric: "The defacement of such public symbols of the sacred degrades our life together and harms the common good."
The RFI Assessment also details that such attacks are part of a broader pattern of assaults on religious freedom involving litigation, legislation, government administrative action, and public smear campaigns, but now increasingly involving violence.
Since the Dobbs leak through the end of August, 63 pro-life pregnancy resource centers across 26 states and the District of Columbia, have similarly been attacked. Twenty-eight of them are explicitly religious, but almost all are staffed by people motivated by their faith. The pregnancy resource centers provide diapers, formula, food, clothing and other daily necessities, fund, find or provide living accommodations, do adoption referrals, pregnancy tests, sonograms, counseling, parenting classes, employment assistance, and post-abortion healing.
It notes that even though it is a federal crime whenever anyone "intentionally obstructs, by force or threat of force, including by threat of force against religious real property, any person in the enjoyment of that person's free exercise of religious beliefs, or attempts to do so" as well as whenever someone "intentionally defaces, damages, or destroys any religious real property, because of the religious character of that property, or attempts to do so," there has been a tepid and "passive" response by federal law enforcement agencies and paltry coverage from the media. Such indifference and neglect, it says, have "consequences for religious free exercise, pluralism, and the safety and security of all religious communities in America."
The Threat Assessment is meant to assist in understanding the larger patterns of these attacks, bring them to the public's attention, counter its negative impact on religious freedom, help Church and pro-life institutions prepare for potential attacks, and catalyze action by elected representatives, government officials and the media.
Presently, it states, there is a "permissive" social environment regarding such attacks where groups like Ruth Sent Us and Jane's Revenge -- with its signature graffiti, "If abortions aren't safe, neither are you" -- can vandalize with seeming impunity.
Because of that environment it predicts that "low threat crimes" like graffiti, broken window and doors, and destruction of outdoor statues are likely to continue unabated. "Medium threat crimes" involving costly property crimes without physical harm to persons, it states, will likely increase as will "high threat crimes" like armed and attacks, arson with people inside, assaults with vehicles, and similar attempted deadly assaults, because "significant numbers of hostile actors are aggrieved and calling for vengeance." It also warned that low threat crimes may increase to medium, and medium to high.
While calling Church institutions to greater vigilance, the Assessment expressed concern about their "inadequate preparedness" with regard to building and property security, security training for personnel and faithful, vulnerability to cyber-attacks, legal and law enforcement support, and media engagement. RFI is preparing another document -- a "Crisis Toolkit for Religious Institutions" -- that will be published before the end of the year with detailed recommendations on how religious institutions can prevent, mitigate and respond to such attacks.
Until then, the "Assessment" said, "it is imperative that pro-life congregations and organizations, and responsible media outlets, take the current threat environment seriously and that government authorities act decisively to prevent, investigate, and prosecute criminal attacks against these institutions."
It is a sobering report, but one that evokes Jesus' admonition in the Gospel: "Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared" (Mt 24:42-44).
- Father Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River who is national chaplain to Aid to the Church in Need USA, a Papal Missionary of Mercy and a Missionary of the Eucharist for the US Bishops.