Ahead of the historic Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision Friday, some Catholic dioceses were warned that protestors might target parishes with acts of vandalism or violence after the decision was issued.
And when the Court’s decision was released Friday, some parishes and churches had already begun making security preparations, anticipating the possibility that a so-called “night of rage” could pose a security risk for sacred spaces.
“A manifesto has been found by federal law enforcement officials, of an extremist group calling for “Night of Rage” beginning at 8pm the night of the SCOTUS decision being handed down,” the Diocese of Stockton warned parishioners in an undated memo obtained by The Pillar this week.
“The group is essentially calling for extreme violence against Catholic Churches and Pregnancy Centers,” the memo warned.
The Stockton diocese told The Pillar the warning was an “internal memo” and declined additional comment. But other California dioceses issued similar warnings to parishes, diocesan officials told The Pillar, and urged collaboration with local law enforcement agencies, ahead of the prospect that churches could be targeted.
The “Night of Rage” threat has been circulated by a pro-abortion group called Jane’s Revenge, which has circulated fliers and social media calls for mass demonstrations on the evening of June 24, after the Dobbs decision was released.
“If abortion isn’t safe, neither are you,” some fliers have warned.
“Back in February, we had an incident at our cathedral,” Fr. Patrick Summerhays, vicar general of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told The Pillar.
“It was probably targeted at the archbishop, since he’s been outspoken on the issue of abortion. He wasn’t celebrating the Sunday Mass, but protestors did interrupt it. They were dressed up as these ‘Handmaidens,’ and they ended up coming into the cathedral and causing a ruckus, and they had to be escorted out. They did achieve at least one aim, which was disrupting the Mass.”
“So we’ve been on heightened alert since February,” Summerhays said.
The priest said the San Francisco archdiocese has warned parishes about the prospect of disruptions during Mass or vandalism.
“At the cathedral, we’ve called upon our Knights of Columbus here, and they’ve helped beef up the security here — having extra sets of eyes and acting as ushers, and that’s really helped. And that’s something we’ve recommended to our parishes,” Summerhays explained.
“We know most of them don’t have a security budget, they can’t all go out and hire security guards. But we’ve told the pastors that if they have some volunteers who have some law enforcement experience, or have served in the military, that they can help to have some extra eyes — just watching out and knowing that those volunteers will take responsibility to help if there is some interruption.”
The archdiocese has also urged parishes “to reach out to their local police department, or precinct, especially around this weekend, where we expect that tensions are heightened, to ask them to pay a little bit more attention during our Sunday Masses. And here in the city, for the cathedral, the police have been very accommodating to us, to come by and make sure that everyone is safe.”
The San Francisco cathedral has also boarded up windows this week on the cathedral’s lower level, as it did in the summer of 2020, when several were broken during protests in the cathedral area.
“There are already protests that have gotten underway here in San Francisco, and we wouldn’t be surprised if they do converge upon the cathedral,” Summerhays said Friday.
“Obviously, we don’t want that, but we do know that the Church is a high profile target.”
Fr. Sam Morehead is rector of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, in Denver, Colorado.
The basilica is two blocks from the state capitol building, “and a natural locus for protest,” Morehead told The Pillar.
During protests in the summer of 2020, the neighborhood surrounding the cathedral was often filled with demonstrators, and many nearby businesses are still closed after protests damaged property.
Morehead said he was contacted by the Department of Justice last week, with a warning that security officials “had concern and worry for the cathedral.”
The church was vandalized in October 2021, with anti-Catholic slogans and symbols painted on its doors and statues external to the building. That crime, Morehead said, “was deemed a hate crime,” and was committed by a local woman who turned herself into police in January.
Morehead said his church’s staff has been preparing for the possibility of violence or vandalism in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
“We’re doing our best to pay attention to the news, of course. My security staff is very good about paying attention to social media as well — they learned from the riots of 2020 to pay attention to social media, because that’s how you usually can best learn about potential protest action,” the priest said.
Morehead said he feels responsible to keep his church building safe, but is most especially concerned for the safety of staff, parishioners, and those who are served by the parish’s social and charitable ministries.
“We are going to staff up in these days, and through the weekend, and we’ve taken steps in the last two days to add extra perimeter fencing, and are closing access to certain doors, so that we can control the flow of human traffic, so that we can keep better eyes on it by staff members who are qualified to maintain safety and security for our parishioners and the public.”
Morehead said that even while his church is in a zone plagued by heavy protesting, he is confident that his staff has been thorough. And he said he is “not particularly” concerned about his own safety.
“I think we’ve done everything that we can. When the protests happened in 2020, there was a brief period — before my time here— when the priests of the cathedral basilica were evacuated [from the rectory] for their own safety, but ultimately proved itself unnecessary.”
“We want to protect human beings, and human life, even before the magnificence of a building. And that’s where our focus has been.”
Representatives in some other high-profile areas told The Pillar they have also taken precautions.
Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, told The Pillar that the archdiocese has been “in regular contact with the NYPD (who have been outstanding, by the way) who are very aware of the situation and will be on alert. We have encouraged our parishes to be in touch with their local precinct or police department or sheriff’s office - depending on location - about this, and most parishes already have a good relationship with their local law enforcement.”
“We have also been in contact with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. We have been told by the FBI that there are no known specific or credible threats to any archdiocesan parish or institution,” Zwilling said.
But a representative for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, In Washington, DC, told The Pillar that the shrine is “not concerned about the ‘Night of Rage.’”
Alex Cranstoun, a communications specialist at the shrine, told The Pillar that the shrine will make use of “regular security with extra Metropolitan Police in support” in coming days.
“The National Shrine is prepared with our normal security procedures with Metropolitan Police on-site along with our regular security staff,” Cranstoun added.
But in San Francisco, Summerhays said, “It will be really important to have that heightened alert, to be more sensitive and vigilant.”
“We are concerned about the safety of our parishioners, but we don’t know whether these are just ‘lone wolves,’ people on the internet, who are trying to drum up some radicals to follow them and to do some extremist things.”
The priest recalled “celebrating Mass on Mother’s Day at the cathedral. I just found myself a little bit on edge as I was starting Mass, because there were plans to interrupt the homily or cause some kind of disturbance. And as it turned out, everything was fine. But it was natural to just be on edge a little bit, with all of this going on right now.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference has raised concern this month about “ongoing attacks on Catholic churches and pro-life pregnancy centers.”
In a June 13 statement, the conference said that:
“For two years now, Catholic churches have been attacked and vandalized at an alarming rate. In July of 2020, we strained to understand this violence. In October of 2021, we called on elected officials to condemn the attacks. This past January, we prayed that all religious communities would be free to worship without fear. Only rarely have the motives been clear; when they were, it was often opposition to the Church’s teachings on life in the womb”.
“Since the leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, charities that support pregnant mothers in need have been firebombed, and pro-life organizations have been attacked almost daily and terrorized, and even the lives of Supreme Court justices have been directly threatened. In light of this, we urge our elected officials to take a strong stand against this violence, and our law enforcement authorities to increase their vigilance in protecting those who are in increased danger.”
For his part, Summerhays told The Pillar that in San Francisco, he felt a “little bit” anxious about safety when protestors demonstrated outside archdiocesan priestly ordinations this month. He said he also “felt especially bad for the guys about to be ordained. Because they’ve laid down their life, and entered the seminary, leading up to this day, and it would be a blemish upon that day for them. And I was fearful of that for them.”
The priest said he thinks those protests are “telling, especially here in California. Because things here in California are probably going to get worse before they get better…and knowing that some of the hardest work is really ahead.”
“It’s one thing to see this decision from the Supreme Court, but that’s just a legal victory. And the real goal is making abortion unthinkable, and in California we’ve got a ways to go on that — and those [newly ordained] priests are going to be right in the middle of that.”
For now, Summerhays said, “we pray that peace will prevail. We just have to do our part…The Department of Homeland Security is making us aware, and we have to take that seriously.”