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Ushers learn to prepare for the worst

First slide

Crime can happen even in places that feel secure and welcoming, such as a church or school. Humans have a natural instinct to believe nothing bad will happen, said Mary Stewart, director of the diocesan office for risk management. But it takes behind-the-scenes work to ensure places that feel safe stay that way.


Though parishes already have safety protocols in place, Stewart hopes to ramp up their efforts with a security ministry — sessions around the diocese to help ushers and parish personnel respond in times of crisis. Several have been held already, led by Stewart, Frank Moncher, a clinical psychologist with Catholic Charities, and a guest speaker from the FBI Behavioral Unit.

To date, there have been no deadly incidents on diocesan church property. But recently, there have been cases of suspicious activity – “people obviously coming to the church for reasons other than worship,” said Stewart.

Training such as this helps ushers identify suspicious behavior and a variety of possible threats.

“Things that have happened in Europe could end up happening over here,” she said.

As a result of the sessions, Stewart said several parishes have formed security task forces that will implement reforms such as sweeps for suspicious people and packages after each Mass. She also hopes churches will have greeters who will welcome new families and spot trouble before it walks through the doors.

According to security ministry expert Carl Chinn, the majority of deadly force incidents happen outside the building. Ninety-one percent of all incidents involve a male aggressor and 74 percent involve a single attacker. Of deadly force incidents at faith-based ministries, 14.1 percent occur on Catholic property.

Jim Florio, operations and facilities manager of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg and a retired Secret Service agent, has a good grasp of what needs to be done in an emergency situation thanks to his former career. But he was grateful others were able to attend as session held June 10 at Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling.

“When we’re talking security, it's not just what you see in the news, such as an active shooter,” said Florio. “(It could be) severe weather (or) an electrical problem. The whole idea is to evacuate the people safely, isolate the problem and to make sure that the appropriate response agency is notified and can get to the situation.”

St. James Church in Falls Church formed a security task force several months ago that recommended key card access for school entrances, placing more cameras in the church and additional lighting around the parish grounds, said Father Patrick L. Posey, pastor. Several law enforcement officers have introduced themselves to long-serving ushers, who now have familiar faces to turn to if the need arises.

Without stereotyping, ushers are trained to look for people whose behavior doesn’t fit in, whether it being jotting down notes, taking photos of exits or ignoring the Mass. Father Posey also plans to add push bars to the church doors so that they can be locked on the outside while letting people already inside leave safely. Ten minutes into Sunday Mass, the church’s two side doors will be locked to outside entry, allowing ushers to focus on just one entryway while making it more difficult for an intruder to interrupt Mass.

“Many churches across the country have in place similar procedures,” said Father Posey. “And while we lament their necessity, our world is changing rapidly and it is incumbent upon us to maintain the sanctity of our church and the safety of all who seek Christ here.”

People who wish to cause harm to a church or one of its parishioners will follow the path of least resistance, said Stewart. So the more difficult churches make it for criminals, the safer the church will be. “I know we’ve made a difference already,” she said.

Learn more

Two more security ministry sessions will be held, one Sept. 30 at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester and another at All Saints Church in Manassas Oct. 21. These sessions are for ushers, greeters or sacristans to attend. For more information, contact the Office of Risk Management at riskmanagement@arlingtondiocese.org, call 703/841-2503 or speak to your parish business manager.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017