Sanctuary Profaned: Protecting America’s Houses of Worship

April 10, 2015 Updated: April 24, 2016

In the classic novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” the innocent Esmeralda finds herself framed for murder and witchcraft.

Despite proclaiming her innocence, she confesses after being threatened to have her foot crushed in a vice, and is sentenced to a public hanging.

Just seconds before her execution, Quasimodo, the hunchback of the book’s title, heroically saves Esmeralda and brings her to the cathedral screaming with thunderous, dramatic, and frantic vehemence, “Sanctuary, sanctuary, sanctuary!”

Violence Unleashed

NYPD officers at Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, Dec. 26, 2014. (Vincent J. Bove)
NYPD officers at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, Dec. 26, 2014. (Vincent J. Bove)

Yet, the innocence represented by Quasimodo saving Esmeralda by giving her sanctuary is a stark contrast to the violence that can take place in houses of worship.

Just after the Columbine tragedy of 1999, I began a speaking circuit throughout the United States to address violence.

The school violence prevention conferences I spoke at were filled with law enforcement officials, teachers, counselors, government officials, administrators, and faith-based leaders.

During my presentations, I continually told attendees that violence has been unleashed, as indicated by tragedies taking place in our schools, campuses, communities, and workplaces.

I stressed that violence was even impacting places once considered sanctuary: our houses of worship.

Unfortunately, this violence continues, as recently depicted during my leadership keynote for the FBI, which included my commentary on these headlines:

• Armed Guards Keep Watch Over Church Services
• Church Pastor Killed During Service, Police Say
• Shooting at Mosque in Coachella, California, Might Be a Hate Crime, Police Say
• 4 Shot, 1 Dead at California Retreat Center
• Estranged Wife Fatally Shot During Services at New Jersey Church
• Catholic Priest Was Found Murdered in His California Rectory
• Gunman Fatally Shoots Member of New Life Church in Colorado
• Two Killed at “Youth With a Mission” in Colorado
• Shooting at Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, at Least 7 Dead
• Guard Killed During Shooting at Holocaust Museum
• Man Fatally Shoots Ex-Wife as She Plays Church Organ, Police Say
• Man Arrested for Shooting at Chicago-Area Mosque With Pellet Rifle as Hundreds Worship Inside
• Ex-Ku Klux Klan Leader Charged in Kansas Jewish Center Killings

In “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” an FBI report states:

“The 6 incidents in houses of worship resulted in 21 people killed and 27 wounded …The ages of the shooters ranged from 24 to 69. Most incidents occurred on Sunday (3), with the rest occurring on Tuesday (1), a Friday (1), and a Saturday (1). In all, 3 shooters were apprehended (2 of whom were restrained by civilians until police arrived), and 3 committed suicide at the scene (2 before police arrived and 1 after).”

World Events Demand Vigilance

Compounding domestic incidents in houses of worship that include hate crimes, domestic violence, and murder, the acceleration of terrorist incidents worldwide urges fully dedicated crisis planning.

Just recently, the massacre of 148 Christians by Islamic extremists at a college in Kenya reminds us of the devastating consequences of terrorism. The possibility for a major terrorist attack in the United States always exists and demands vigilance.

Security must be enhanced and must include awareness and prevention training, security vulnerability assessments by board-certified professionals, drills, programs, target-hardening, partnerships, certifications, and protocols.

Recommendations: A Partial List

The collaboration of our houses of worship, law enforcement, and private security should include learning from the aforementioned FBI active shooter document, active shooter training as available through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and implementing “Recommended Best Practices for Securing Houses of Worship” by ASIS International including the following:

• Report suspicious packages to police, and do not touch any suspicious package. Develop a suspicious package protocol with instructions on reporting to police as well as not touching or moving the item. Address this issue in emergency evacuation procedures.
• Request local law enforcement presence during high volume worship times and holiday celebrations.
• Include law enforcement in your security planning process.
• Consider hiring off-duty police officers as part of your security program.

Simply stated, a word to the wise urging vigilance: “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.”

Vincent J. Bove
Vincent J. Bove

Vincent J. Bove, CPP, is a national speaker and author on issues critical to America. Bove is a recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award for combating crime and violence and is a former confidant of the New York Yankees. His newest book is “Listen To Their Cries.” For more information, see