Belfast Telegraph

Why attacks on clergy and church property aren't just crimes... they are sacrilege

Executive needs joined-up, inter-departmental strategy to combat targeting of clerics and places of worship, writes Martin O'Brien

We have seen so many horrors on the international landscape already this summer that it is easy to overlook, or fail to pay sufficient attention to, some shocking things on our own doorstep which do not make world headlines.

It doesn't mean that we care less about the plight of our suffering sisters and brothers in Nice, Baghdad, Munich or Tokyo if we ask some searching questions of ourselves about some incidents nearer home that we, as individuals and as a community, can with some thought and resolve do something about - both in the short and longer term.

Take two quite appalling incidents which happened within a short time of each other in Belfast at the weekend. Both had a common denominator. They were, for whatever reason, perpetrated by violent criminals and they violated sacred space and represented an assault on the wider community.

But both acts of violence brought out the best in the victims and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

I am referring to the aggravated burglary of a priest, who was held up at gunpoint in his parochial house adjoining a Catholic church, and the arson attacks which severely damaged a Presbyterian church.

It is especially concerning that one of the lines of enquiry being pursued by the PSNI in its investigation into the Presbyterian church attack is that it was a sectarian hate crime.

There was a time not that long ago when a burglary or armed robbery on a member of the clergy in their home would have been unthinkable in this community - whatever other horrors churches, Orange halls and GAA clubs endured (and sometimes still endure) from the perpetrators of sectarian hate crime.

Thankfully, direct attacks on clergy are still rare, although one recalls an assault on a priest in an aggravated robbery at St Peter's Cathedral in Belfast, and the robbing of two priests at gunpoint at their parochial house in Omagh just about a year ago.

The two most recent incidents were not just serious crimes, they were acts of sacrilege which repel anyone with a modicum of decency and an adherence to the verities to which we should still hold dear as a society.

While it is tempting - and indeed right - to ask if nothing is sacred any more, such behaviour is perpetrated by a statistically very small number of people, but that does not mean we should not move Heaven and Earth to address it.

One does not have to be a person of faith, nor an adherent of any religion, to appreciate the depth of hurt and of violation involved and to recognise how such egregious actions represent an attack not just on the faith communities directly affected, but on the community as a whole and on the values which should mark us out as decent and tolerant people.

Although there was no loss of life, one should be under no illusion as to the seriousness of such incidents, and so it is instructive to recount briefly what happened.

Fr Denis Ryan (70), from Melbourne, Australia, is providing holiday cover at St Michael the Archangel Church in Finaghy Road North.

Two men forced their way into the presbytery at gunpoint and ransacked the house before making off with cash and a set of keys.

One can only imagine the trauma Fr Ryan must have gone through, and a police officer said he was "badly shaken by his ordeal".

Yet Alex Maskey MLA, who spent some time with him afterwards, reported that the priest insisted on preparing for a funeral Mass the next day and, risking his own health, he went on to take the service in an example of extraordinary service and devotion to those in his spiritual care.

Pope Francis, who in a homily last month exhorted priests to be "stubborn shepherds who take risks ... in doing good", would be proud of Fr Ryan.

Then there was the despicable double arson attack on Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church: a less-serious attack on Friday followed by a much more serious incident - the breaking into the church and main hall under cover of darkness in the early hours of the Sabbath Day and the starting of fires, which caused considerable damage, forcing the cancellation of the normal Sunday service.

Mercifully, a vigilant PSNI patrol spotted the fire and raised the alarm, so preventing the destruction of the church and, amid their anguish, the congregation summoned the strength to hold an open-air service outside their desecrated church on Sunday afternoon.

One cannot underestimate the distress caused by such a sacrilegious act perpetrated on a much-loved church at the heart of the local community, and new Secretary of State James Brokenshire did well to rush out a statement condemning the attack. At such a time words of solidarity can be some consolation.

Despite the horrors of our recent history, we must never be inured to an assault on the things people hold to be sacred.

What was particularly striking were the words issued by Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church itself within a short time of the attack on Sunday morning.

In its moment of pain, it drew from the well of grace to say: "We are sad that someone carried out these acts, but we are a forgiving people and will pray for them.

"As a Christian community, we have experienced the forgiveness of God and while these events are difficult to understand, we forgive those who did this."

Those are words which will stand the test of time for many of us when we have been deeply hurt.

But how can we bear down on crime of the kind that made Fr Ryan and the congregation in Saintfield Road victims this past week?

There is no panacea, and it is a huge issue that raises searching questions.

First and foremost, as parents and grandparents, are we actively instilling the concept of what is right and wrong into our children and grandchildren?

Are we, as citizens, truly alive to our moral responsibility to be the eyes and ears of the PSNI and pass on any information that may assist in prevention and prosecution?

As citizen-electors, what do we propose to do by way of getting our MLAs, those we pay to run this place, to put flesh on the bones of the draft Programme for Government (PfG) 2016-21 once the Assembly returns in September?

The 112-page draft PfG (not counting various appendices) has many laudable goals or outcomes. One reads: "We have a safe community where we respect the law and each other", and just one of several tasks of the Executive in relation to that would be "tackling poverty and disadvantage and reducing the negative impacts of alcohol and illegal drugs".

Another stated outcome: "We have a shared society that respects diversity" and, elsewhere, there are helpful references to improving mental health and reducing offending and reoffending, and measures to combat paramilitary activity.

What appears to be missing is a clear commitment to joined-up government, a truly inter-departmental, cross-cutting holistic approach led by the Executive Office across, say, Education, Justice and Health to tackle the type of crime visited on Fr Ryan and Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant, and a former award-winning BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph


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