Civil rights league eyeing anti-Catholic sentiment in wake of Indigenous meetings with Pope

Fire engulfs the 105-year-old St. Timothee Church in Shemogue, N.B., in December 2021. (Photo courtesy of Beaubassin Fire Department Facebook - CCN The B.C. Catholic)

By Terry O’Neill, The B.C. Catholic

The executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League says he hopes anti-Catholic hate crimes will not flare up in the wake of the historic meetings at the Vatican between Pope Francis and representatives of Canada’s First Nations.

Christian Elia noted that anti-Catholic hate speech, vandalism, and arson erupted throughout the country last summer, especially in B.C. and the Maritimes, after sometimes sensational and inaccurate news coverage surrounding the release of information about unmarked graves at the old Kamloops Residential School.

It is critical, therefore, that the mainstream media report the results of the Indigenous meetings without bias, he said. But given the anti-Catholic tone he has seen in news coverage leading up to the Vatican meetings, Elia isn’t optimistic. “I heard some good, old-fashioned, general run-of-the-mill, anti-Catholic statements in the media in the last couple of weeks,” including “some political commentary that has kind of made me wince.”

The Catholic Civil Rights League launched a nationwide database last November to keep track of attacks on church property and personnel. It identified 153 incidents since 2010 and has since added three more. Twenty-five incidents involved arson, and a further 50 described property damage and graffiti.

The B.C. Catholic advised Elia of a recent arson that the database had not yet captured— a Dec. 9, 2021, attack that destroyed the 105-year-old St. Timothee Church in Shemogue, N.B. One man has been charged with arson in connection with the incident.

Father Louis-Joseph Boudreau, who serves the parish, said in an interview he knows the man charged with the crime and does not believe the attack was motivated by hatred of the Church.

The historic church’s burning is a loss to the parish, Boudreau said, but parishioners have been well-served by another nearby church. He said a parish committee informed parishioners in a late-March meeting that it does not make financial sense to rebuild the church. Instead, a tiny church-museum building will be erected, featuring many artifacts that were saved before the church was destroyed.

“We’re managing with it, but it’s too bad what we lost there,” Boudreau said.

In B.C., several individuals were charged following church attacks last summer.

Kathleen Panek pleaded guilty in October to two counts of arson in connection with the July 2021 destruction of St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey. She is scheduled to be sentenced April 8.

Suspects in another church attack also pleaded guilty to charges of mischief under $5,000 after smearing orange paint on the front of St. Jude’s Parish church in Vancouver last Canada Day.

Zoe Luba received a conditional discharge and 12 months’ probation on Dec. 7 and was ordered to pay a $100 victim-fine surcharge. Her sister, Emily Luba, also received a discharge conditional upon her completing 12 months’ probation. She was also ordered to pay a victim fine surcharge of $750, stay away from the parish property, write a letter of apology to the pastor and congregation, and complete 40 hours of community work service.

Statistics Canada reported March 17 that police-reported hate crimes rose 37 per cent from 2019 to 2020, to a total of 2,669 incidents. Crimes motivated by hatred of religion decreased by 16 per cent to 515. Those targeting Jews accounted for most, rising to 321 incidents from 306 in 2019. Anti-Muslim crime dropped (82 incidents compared with 182 the year before) as did anti-Catholic hate crime (42 compared with 51 in 2019).

Elia said the league’s data base clearly shows a large increase in anti-Catholic hate crimes throughout the summer of 2021.

Statistics Canada cited the effects of the COVID pandemic for the overall rise in hate crimes. “The pandemic further exposed and exacerbated issues related to community safety and discrimination in Canada, including hate crime,” it said in a news release.

That trend was also cited by the B.C. Human Rights Commission when it announced last August that it would hold an official inquiry into “the disturbing surge of hate [during] the pandemic.” Catholic observers criticized Commissioner Kasai Govender for failing in her comments justifying the inquiry to acknowledge anti-Catholic hatred that had surged in the months preceding her launching of the inquiry.

The commission said in a February 2022 news release that it had received online submissions from more than 1,700 persons who said they had either witnessed or directly experienced a hate incident during the pandemic. The window for public input closed March 6.

Govender said earlier that the commission would also invite written submissions and hold roundtable talks to gather information. None of this would be held in public, she said, nor would a list of participating individuals or organizations be released.

Commission communications officer Charlotte Kingston failed to respond to three messages from The B.C. Catholic seeking information on the status of those internal proceedings. A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver said the commission had not contacted the archdiocese for any input into its inquiry.

The commission is expected to release its report in early 2023.

Elia said Catholics have a civic responsibility to ensure that authorities know of church attacks, even if it’s as minor as graffiti. “If incidents aren’t reported and if the perpetrators of incidents aren’t sought after by local authorities, we cannot take any [action],” he said.

Public involvement works, Elia said, pointing to Catholic participation in successfully lobbying the federal government in 2017 to retain the “interruption of religious services” section of the Criminal Code of Canada.

Catholic institutions contribute to the public good, he said. “So, when we’re attacked in any way, we have to bring this out to light and allow the proper legal process to take place. And we also have to collect the data because it is the right thing to do.”

Information about church attacks can be reported at