Boston priests praise police but want clergy seen as first responders

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

After two bombs exploded near the finish line April 15, wounding more than 260 people and leaving three dead, two priests rushed toward the scene from nearby St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine on Boylston Street.

Oblate Father Tom Carzon, director of seminarians for the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, reached out to The Pilot, Boston's archdiocesan newspaper, after he saw media coverage surrounding their experience.

An opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal described the priests in close proximity to the victims when the police turned them away from the scene. Social media and other news coverage spread the story from there.

"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 understood the police turning people back, including clergy, in light of the situation.

"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.

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

In performing the sacrament, also called the anointing of the sick, a priest anoints the recipient with oils and calls for God to alleviate the suffering of the victim. Father Carzon said he was not close enough to the scene for the sacrament when the police stopped him.

"It was a couple blocks away," said Father Carzon.

Father Carzon said from the corner where police stopped him 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 told to do so by the police, Father Carzon began providing pastoral care, on-the-spot counseling and any other help he could for those in the area - including distributing fruit and water afterward.

"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.

The Oblates gave people directions, gave one person a ride to meet family, and helped people find their way in the chaos. He commended people all over the city who offered similar help to runners and victims.

Father Carzon noted that officers and soldiers he encountered in the following days seemed to appreciate 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.

Oblate Father John Wykes, director of the chapel in the Prudential Center, left a meeting with his provincial at the shrine to rush to the scene.

Father Wykes also said the police turned him away blocks away from the site of the explosions and the finish line. Both priests said they left the shrine after hearing the sirens of emergency vehicles rush by.

When he arrived at one 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.

He said that day he did not see anyone who had been injured that day.

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," he said. "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.

According to hospital chaplain staff at various hospitals interviewed by The Pilot in the days after the bombings, including Mass General Hospital, injured Catholics received sacraments after being admitted and stabilized.

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

Pineo is a reporter at The Pilot, newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970