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Arson at Staten Island Episcopal church – hate crime?

Arson at Staten Island Episcopal church – hate crime?

NYPD’s Hate Crime Task Force is investigating arson in the Staten Island neighborhood of Stapleton after a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the front window of St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church on Sunday. No one was injured in the small fire that broke out as a result of the attack and damage to the church was minor.

The historic St. Paul’s was built in the 1860s of Staten Island trap rock with brownstone trim and designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter. The church was consecrated by Potter’s uncle, Bishop Horatio Potter. Edward Potter was the architect responsible for building Mark Twain’s Hartford, CT residence.

In 2009 St. Paul’s was at the center of an embezzlement scandal after The Rev. William Blasingame was accused of stealing over $84,000 earmarked for parishioners in need and church upkeep. According to prosecutors, Blasingame used the money to pay for plastic surgery and prescription medication. He was sentenced to 5 years of probation and ordered to pay back the embezzled funds.   Photo credit: Staten Island Advance/Shane DiMaio


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Paul Woodrum

It does sound more like a revenge crime than a hate crime. The Molotov cocktail was dropped through a narthex window (see photo) partially opened to help cool the church for Sunday services. It landed on a tile or stone floor. I suspect anyone intent on a real hate crime would have thrown the cocktail through a nave window where it would more likely have landed on wood pews or floors or carpeting thereby igniting a far more serious fire.

Helen Kromm

This act of arson may or may not be a hate crime. Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but I think it’s prudent for law enforcement to consider that possibility from the outset.

What the article above fails to mention is what is believed, or suspected to be, the most likely cause or culprit. At least what church officials believe at this point to be the most likely cause.

From that article:

“No arrests have been made and the motive is unclear, but church officials say they have a theory as to why it might have happened. Rev. Schraplau believes it involves an old shed on the back lot of the property, where he said a homeless man had been living.”

“For six months or more, all during the winter,” he said. “We kept asking him to leave, and finally we had to literally board up where he was living, because it is dangerous.”

“The man left two weeks ago and hasn’t been seen since. Extra security is now being added.”

That theory appears to be the most likely scenario, and the predominant working theory from the outset. Whether that is proven true remains to be seen, and the possibility always exists that the crime itself will remain unsolved.

Before I make this statement, I should say at the outset that criminal behavior, and certainly arson, is reprehensible. It can never be condoned, and must be punished.

Having said that, I’m left with a very queasy feeling in terms of how the church may have handled this. In fact, I don’t know how they handled this, other than the snippets that are provided in the news source I reference.

What we do seem to know is that a homeless man occupied a shed on church property for a period of six months. The church attempted to talk this man into leaving, but to no avail. So they then made the decision to board up this “unsafe” shed, and deny him access to this. And I wonder why this shed was deemed “unsafe” to begin with. Is it church policy to allow unsafe structures to stand on church property, whether they are occupied or not?

I don’t think many people would argue that homeless people are marginalized in our society. And there is always an ongoing effort to relocate homeless people- never mind that in many of these relocation efforts, there isn’t any place for them to go.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that many regard the church as a refuge. We like to think of it as such, although those efforts to make it so fall abysmally short.

So we have this homeless man who thought of this shed as home for a period of six months. And I think it’s legitimate to ask what, if anything, did the church do to mitigate his relocation- that is to say, what was done, if anything, other than boarding this structure up and denying him access.

If this crime was in fact committed by this homeless man, that is inexcusable. And clearly the church has committed no crime here at all. But is there a sin of omission here?

There was an article here not long ago that told the story of a Catholic church that had apparently installed sprinklers as a tool to dislodge homeless people from a covered portion of their building at night and when it rained. My memory of the article is hazy, and if I’m off on the specifics, I apologize. But my memory is clear enough to recall that this was an action that largely was rejected and condemned.

We don’t know all the facts yet, but I think it’s important that questions related to the handling of this homeless man’s situation be asked and answered. Very often we fail and come up short when it regards mission, and what we are called to accomplish for others. Whether this situation rises to that level is uncertain. And again, it doesn’t mitigate the crime itself. But at the same time, I have that uneasy, queasy feeling that we could have done so much more, and failed to do so.

David O'Rourke

Helen, I stand corrected on the timeline of when they asked him to leave the shed.

To the question of whether this fire was started by the man who was living in the shed, that will of course wait on the police investigation to run its course. There was an incident at a parish in Denver a few years ago in which the rector asked a man who was sleeping in the bushes alongside the church to leave, the man got very angry, and 12 hours later a fire was started at the church at the same spot where the man had been sleeping. I don’t know if it was ever proven that the man started the fire, but that was certainly the suspicion.

This whole discussion raises the issue that if a parish cannot address the needs someone brings to them, say for shelter, then they should know what resources are available in the local community and be willing to help connect a person to those resources. Also, depending on their facilities, some parishes do open their facilities for overnight shelter, and some also allow limited camping on their properties, especially when overnight camping bans have been put in place by the local government.

David O'Rourke

Good questions Helen. To address your question about the parish allowing an unsafe structure on their property, it is one thing to use a shed for storage and another to allow it to be used as a long term shelter. How would the man using it to sleep in have escaped it in the event of a fire, a very real possibility if he used a stove or lit a fire to stay warm? Did he have access to adequate bathroom facilities? Did the parish incur liability if it knowingly allowed someone to live in a shed that was not designed for habitation? I don’t know the details of this specific situation, but since it took the parish 6 months to take action to close up the shed, one question that comes to mind for me is whether they waited until warmer weather to take action.

Yes, the church has a role to provide sanctuary to those in need. However we also need to ensure that the sanctuary we offer is safe, sanitary, and humane.

Hopefully the public attention on the fact that someone needed to resort to sleeping in a storage shed at the back of a church’s property will draw more attention to the need in our communities and encourage our parishes to respond.

Helen Kromm

Hi David- I disagree with some of what you have to say. I also agree with some, in fact most, of your comments.

By and large, what you have stated is largely speculation. I don’t disagree with much of it, because we simply don’t know what the circumstances were. In other words, much of what you’ve said could in fact be correct.

I would disagree with your take that the parish waited six months to evict the man in question. Apparently, they were applying pressure to get him to leave throughout that period of time. We know that because they’ve told us that: “For six months or more, all during the winter,” he said. “We kept asking him to leave”

So all during the winter, “We kept asking him to leave”. The desire here on their part was clearly for him to leave, and it’s also clear cold weather wasn’t a factor in mitigating that desire. So the question that pops into my mind is what, if any, alternatives may have been offered in terms of shelter. That is one among many questions I’d like to see answered.

There’s also a larger issue to ponder. The parish seems to think that the most plausible explanation for the arson is this homeless man. It would be foolish to discount that possibility for sure, but that behavior isn’t necessarily characteristic of the homeless.

By and large, homeless people make an effort to stay under the radar. They’re also used to being evicted and told to move on. To the extent that they commit crimes, many of those are crimes of survival, and not crimes of vengeance. It’s also telling that the church officials state that they hadn’t seen this man for a period of two weeks.

So if he did in fact commit the crime, he waited two weeks to accomplish this. That means he waited two weeks stewing and seething, returned to the parish, and tossed a Molotov cocktail through the window.

If you look at the link I provided, the church narrative is pretty simple. There was a homeless guy in the shed. We asked him to leave repeatedly. Finally, we boarded up the shed, and he was gone after that. We never saw him again. End of story. Those are the facts and narrative presented.

So there is either more to the story relating to what was done to ameliorate his situation, and it’s left unsaid in that piece, or there isn’t any more and that’s all there is to tell. And as you say: “Yes, the church has a role to provide sanctuary to those in need. However we also need to ensure that the sanctuary we offer is safe, sanitary, and humane.”

edited for brevity

Paul Woodrum

Odd, Jay. Your argument for clergy not having oversight of church funds is supported by an anecdote about four dishonest (lay, I presume) treasurers. My father was a CPA and served frequent terms as church treasurer, but I didn’t learn anything about book keeping until my second cure when the church treasurer, also a CPA, taught me how the books were kept and how to read the financial reports. I didn’t handle the funds, but did oversee the finances. I knew if anything went wrong, the treasurer might go to jail but ultimately, as the priest, I was responsible.

Now, back to arson…

Jay Croft

I do look over the finances and occasionally have questions. But I don’t have access to the funds; I’m not authorized to write checks.

I’m not sure I could agree that the responsibility ultimately falls on the priest. There are ways to “cook the books” to hide theft.

About 25 years ago the treasurer for the National Church stole millions from 815. Edmund Browning was PB at that time. He said that this was the worst incident in his term as PB>

Jay Croft

All the more reason for the clergy not to have access to church funds.. There are safeguards in national and diocesan canon law, but too often these are not followed.

Many clergy, including myself, extend this concept to beyond the church walls. For example I have, at various times, been asked to be treasurer for an organization or for a special project. I’ve always refused.

When I accepted a call to a new diocese some years ago, I learned that four church treasurers were in trouble for mishandling church funds. Thankfully, none were from my congregation.

Paul Woodrum

Not sure why Blasingame was pulled into this report on the recent St. Paul’s arson attempt. Until he seems to have gone off the tracks (something an often very judgmental church can do to one)., he was an effective rector in a blighted neighborhood who saved St. Paul’s from closing and built up the congregation both as a community and for the community. It would seem that even here “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

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