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Church safety at forefront for facility leaders in Diocese of Wilmington

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In the wake of random violent incidents, church leaders try to prepare safety measures for while people are at prayer and potentially most vulnerable. (CNS photo/James Ramos, Texas Catholic Herald)

As the spate of mass shootings throughout the country continues to rise, Amanda Fulton never considered the prospect something like that could happen at St. John the Apostle Church in Milford.

Then Fulton, an usher who also is administrative assistant in the church office, attended a Violent Intruder Preparedness Response workshop sponsored by the Diocese of Wilmington in conjunction with Delaware State Police.

“I was still operating under the ‘it won’t happen here’ mentality,” she said. “[T]he training awakened me to the randomness of these attacks and the distinct possibility that these tragedies can happen anywhere, at any time.”

A quick review of mass shootings indicates why religious leaders could afford not to worry about incidents in their churches, temples and synagogues. Of 50 deadliest mass shootings, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, between 1984 and Oct. 1, 2017, three occurred at churches. The most recent was June 18, 2015, at predominantly black Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine people were killed in what is alleged to be a hate crime.

On Nov. 5, 2017, any illusion that churches seemed largely immune evaporated when 26 worshipers were shot to death at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Michael Connelly
Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly, then seven months into his new post as coordinator of Safe Environment for the diocese, saw his role expand from primarily ensuring diocesan entities follow child safety guidelines to helping parishes think of the unthinkable. The retired state policeman detective helped arrange three violent intruder workshops; he hopes to schedule another for the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland.

A “one-plan-fits-all” approach is unrealistic, given the diversity of churches in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Connelly said. For example, Good Shepherd in Perryville, Md., has four churches in different Cecil County towns; St. Luke in Ocean City, Md., has one church year-round but opens a second for the summer tourist season; and St. John the Apostle has the church in Milford and a mission, St. Bernadette, in Harrington.

Church officials walk a fine line to provide a safe environment yet retain churches’ welcoming and sacred atmosphere. As Fulton put it: “The unique situation … is how to protect without disruption. Having to be swiped with a metal detector or submit to a back check would definitely detract from the sanctity of Mass.”

St. Luke’s organized its Parish Safety Committee in 2016, well before the Texas church shooting. The Ocean City Police Department worked with church officials to develop a “footprint analysis” of parish campuses. That, combined with training programs such as the Violent Intruder Preparedness Response, and Civilian Response to an Active Shooter Event, led to a parish safety plan.

Now, more volunteers welcome parishioners and visitors to Mass and the parish has “increase[ed] our vigilance on areas of vulnerability,” said Don Kyle, parish council executive officer. When Mass begins, ushers secure all doors. “Those arriving late for Mass are welcomed and enter through a door monitored by an usher.”

Beach Season makes it “more challenging [to implement the plan] because of the large number of visitors; the operation of two churches that are [2.7] miles apart, and twice as many Masses as in the off-season,” Kyle said.

Good Shepherd must take into consideration the unique aspects of each church that will dictate an appropriate plan for each. “Building sizes, entrance ways, and location of the altar are different in each church,” said Jenifer Pileggi, school principal who also is on the parish safety committee.

Her school has a crisis plan that it practices throughout the year, as well as technological and mechanical safety measures. Still, the violent intruder program made Pileggi aware of “a couple of areas I would like to address.” She declined to elaborate, noting the safety issues involved.

St. John the Beloved, one of the diocese’s larger parishes with about 3,000 registered families, has one campus with church, school, gym/church hall, offices and rectory. A safety committee formed late last year includes state, county and city police who “are a wealth of knowledge and deeply committed to keeping our parish campus safe and secure,” said Father Joe Piekarski, pastor. Among the more obvious safety measures planned are the addition of more exterior lighting and more security cameras throughout the campus.

Father Piekarski bemoaned the need for such measures.

“Sadly, our society has lost its innocence to all the violence and fears of our time. We are all targets,” he said. “Therefore, we must live in faith but be wise to the ways of the world [and] be prepared.”

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