Man arrested outside Salt Lake City cathedral, charged with assault

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A file photo shows the exterior of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. A man was arrested May 26, 2024, after police say he randomly attacked people at the cathedral during morning Mass. The incident and others at Catholic churches in the U.S. and Canada in recent months point to the need for parishes to implement more robust security measures, say security experts. (OSV News photo/courtesy Intermountain Catholic)

SALT LAKE CITY (OSV News) — Just as the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass in the Cathedral of the Madeleine got underway May 26, Father Martin Diaz noted that “some kind of commotion” was occurring in the back.

He stopped the Mass and asked participants to remain in their seats because recently there had been two medical emergencies during services at the cathedral.

Because of those situations, “I think I was on hyper alert to just ask people to sit down,” said Father Diaz, the cathedral rector. However, after a few moments, “Mass continued as normal.”

Incident at the Cathedral of the Madeleine

Afterward, he said, he learned that Willie Green, the cathedral sexton, twice asked a man who was sitting on the floor with his feet in the aisle to sit in a pew. The man stood up and swung a bamboo cane at Green, who ducked, and the cane hit another cathedral employee in the forehead without much force, Father Diaz said.

At that point, several parishioners escorted the man outside and restrained him until the police arrived and arrested him, Father Diaz said, adding, “The video outside shows eight to 10 men surrounding the man. The police arrived rather quickly.”

According to the “affidavit of probable cause” from the Salt Lake City Police Department, the suspect “struck two victims with a bamboo wooden sword. He then struck a third victim with his fists, knocking the victim’s glasses off and breaking them. … There is no known motive and (the suspect) is not known at all by the victims involved in this case.”

The suspect resisted arrest, according to the affidavit, which listed among the charges aggravated assault and interfering with a peace officer.

Father Diaz said there was no damage to the cathedral and no one reported any injury to him.

The priest told the Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City’s diocesan newspaper, that he has been at the cathedral for 11 years “and this is the first time that anything like this … has ever happened.”

Increased attacks at Catholic Churches

The assault at the Salt Lake City cathedral is one of the latest incidents occurring at Catholic churches in the U.S. and Canada, among them a Texas priest being pepper-sprayed while hearing confessions in April and 10 protesters disrupting the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York March 30.

These incidents may vary in their severity, but all highlight the need for parishes to implement more robust security measures, experts told OSV News in an April interview.

In security industry parlance, churches and other religious structures are known as “soft targets” — public, civilian spaces that are easily accessible and typically have limited security measures. A growing recognition of that vulnerability has led to initiatives such as the Department of Homeland Security’s house of worship protection program and the annual Church Security Essentials Conference, which took place April 25-26 in Austin, Texas.

Balancing security and pastoral welcome

Preserving both pastoral welcome and commonsense security in places of prayer can be a delicate balance, said Craig Gundry of Critical Intervention Services, a Tampa, Florida-based security consulting firm with extensive experience in church security.

“Churches tend to be very open communities, and that’s desirable. That’s what we want to create,” Gundry told OSV News. “And that obviously presents some challenges from a security perspective.”

Enhancing church security

Gundry said that his firm has particularly focused on the details of “improving physical security for churches while maintaining an environment that is conducive to community and to spiritual celebration.”

In addition to developing emergency response policies and procedures, assembling a “church security team (is) very valuable,” Gundry said.

“They in essence serve as the guardians of the flock … observing and monitoring for potential threats,” he said.

OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.