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New Jersey church adds armed police for Mass following school shootings

South Jersey church goes on the defensive with police patrols during Mass, other churches beefing up security following recent mass shootings.

St. Charles Borromeo Church in Washington Township in Gloucester County, N.J. now has a uniformed officer on patrol on church grounds during Mass. The church has also banned backpacks and duffel bags as added security in the wake of recent mass shootings.
St. Charles Borromeo Church in Washington Township in Gloucester County, N.J. now has a uniformed officer on patrol on church grounds during Mass. The church has also banned backpacks and duffel bags as added security in the wake of recent mass shootings.Read moreMELANIE BURNEY

A South Jersey church has hired police officers to patrol the grounds during weekend Mass, tightened security, and put parishioners on alert to keep them from harm while they worship.

St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Washington Township brought in officers from the local police department as a precaution, said the church's pastor, the Rev.  Michael J. Matveenko. The move was a reaction to the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla, last month that left 17 dead and sparked a wave of protests led by young people seeking gun control reform, he said.

"We just thought an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Matveenko said. The pastor and his staff at the parish, which is part of the Diocese of Camden, made the decision to add the patrols, he said.

Across the region, some religious leaders recently have hired armed officers, developed emergency preparedness plans, and attended classes on how to respond to a crisis in sacred places where many never believed such precautions would be necessary. Massacres in churches in Texas and South Carolina led clergy to the reality that their places of worship could be vulnerable.

In Washington Township, the police patrols began March 4 and have continued every Saturday evening and Sunday morning during Mass. A marked police cruiser is parked outside the church, which is on a busy street in the suburban community of 48,500, the largest municipality in Gloucester County. The officer also directs traffic. Matveenko said he could not provide the cost for the patrols, which are being paid for by the church.

Matveenko said the heightened security has been well received by the congregation and no incidents have been reported. There are no plans to station an armed officer inside the sanctuary, he said. The church made headlines last year when a life-size cutout of Pope Francis was stolen and later returned intact.

While other places of worship have increased security, St. Charles Borromeo stands out in its use of armed police patrols.

Some parishes in the Camden Diocese request police presence during weekend Mass, usually to assist with pedestrians and traffic, said spokesman Michael Walsh. When requested by the local pastor, active-shooter training workshops have been held at some parishes, he said.

Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said he was unaware of similar actions by any of its 216 parishes in the five-county Pennsylvania region. "We certainly would take any threat to the safety of parishioners seriously and work in conjunction with appropriate authorities to ensure a safe environment," he said, adding, "There is no such threat at this time."

According to the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, there are 16,000 houses of worship statewide, including religious schools, day-care centers and community centers. Between 2006 and 2016, there were 147 shootings across the country at churches, the office said.

"We shouldn't have to feel like we have to defend these places," said Edwin Moore,  a facilities security officer and trainer with the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. But, religious institutions must be prepared for a worst-case scenario, he said.

In a weekly bulletin to parishioners this month, Matveenko announced the plan to increase safety measures, adding security cameras and holding meetings with current or retired law enforcement officers to enlist their help in the event of an emergency in the church. The church has also banned backpacks and duffel bags. Ushers and greeters have been told to ask parishioners to leave those items in their cars. Exceptions will be made for diaper bags, but those must be inspected by a minister.

"Anyone refusing to abide by these directions will be asked to leave and the police will be summoned if anyone refuses to do so," the pastor wrote. "The possibility of a serious incident is very, very remote. Still, we must always be on alert and prepared to act because unfortunately, this is the world in which we now live."

Washington Township Police Chief Patrick Gurcsik said two other churches in the township — Gloucester County Community Church and SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church — have hired the department for traffic control. St. Charles went a step further with a security detail, he said. The chief could not provide the cost of the services.

"It seems like it is a new trend," Gurcsik said Thursday. "Everyone is becoming much more cognizant of security concerns in our schools and places of worship."

Meanwhile, the Deptford Police Department is holding an active-shooter training workshop for clergy on April 9 to teach church leaders what to do in a crisis. There are about 100 churches located within a three- to five-mile radius of Deptford.

"Because of the hatred spewing out of leadership and people feeling that they have the freedom to do whatever they want, it is incumbent on us to make sure our parishioners are safe," said the Rev. Derek Gatling of First Baptist Church of Jericho, who helped organize the workshop.  "The environment has become so toxic."

About 50 people attended a similar workshop on Saturday at Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, sponsored by the Gloucester County branch of the NAACP. Experts advised attendees to consider one of three steps in the event of an active shooter: run, hide or fight.

"This is a fight you cannot lose," Moore told the crowd. "The Lord is not going to condemn you. We are allowed to defend ourselves."

Juvencio Gonzalez, a special assistant to Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mike Stack who attended the training, said he planned to share what he had learned with officials on the other side of the river. "This is the time to prepare. We grew up in churches where we never had to think twice about that."

Moore urged church leaders to assess their buildings for security gaps and to develop an emergency action plan and hold practice drills to evacuate the building. He drew laughter when he suggested locking the door after service begins and admitting latecomers with a buzzer. That would force parishioners to arrive on time and secure the church, he said.

"Our goal is not to make our places of worship a jail or prison," said John J. Paige, a lieutenant in the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

In June 2015, nine black worshipers were killed after they welcomed a stranger to join their Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. The gunman, Dylann Roof, who opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun he smuggled into the church, was convicted on federal hate crime charges and sentenced to death.

Gatling said his church, which has about 500 members, recently got a grant from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to increase security. The money will be used to install cameras and video surveillance, new doors and fire alarm systems, he said.

"We will still show love for everybody, as Jesus has commanded us," he said. "We're just being cautious and vigilant in all that we do."