Don’t ignore Canada’s spike in anti-Catholic hate crimes, watchdog says

St. Jean Baptiste fire Fire destroys St. Jean Baptiste parish in Morinville, June 30, 2021. | St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church

Catholics in Canada suffered the largest spike in religion-based hate crimes last year, and government officials must take action in response, a watchdog group has said.

“Undoubtedly, this increase can be attributed to attacks on Catholic churches in Canada in 2021 including the deliberate burning down of churches,” the Toronto-based Catholic Civil Rights League said Aug. 4. “Mainstream media has reported the overall 27 percent increase, but the most staggering of all increases, the 260% rise in anti-Catholic hate crimes, has been largely ignored.”

The number of incidents targeting Catholics increased more than 260% between 2020 and 2021, according to crime figures from Canada’s national statistical office, Canada Statistics.

On Aug. 2, the office released a comprehensive report on police-reported crime in 2021. The report’s figures for police-reported hate crimes by detailed motivation show the major increase in crimes targeting Catholics. By comparison, from 2020 to 2021 crimes targeting Muslims increased by 71%, while crimes targeting Jews increased by 47%. Crimes targeting “other religions” increased by 60%.

There were 43 total recorded hate crimes against Catholics in 2020, a number which jumped to 155 in 2021. 

Reported crimes against Jews in 2021 totaled 487, while reported crimes against Muslims numbered 144.

It is unknown how many incidents were not reported to police or to the national statistics office. The 2019 General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety indicated that only about 22% of perceived hate crimes were reported to police.

The Aug. 2 Canada Statistics report noted that crime figures are dependent on police reporting and only reflect incidents both reported to police and subsequently classified as hate crimes. Changes in reported hate crime figures could reflect an actual increase in crime, or also changes in reporting by the public due to factors including “heightened sensitivity after high-profile events.”

The Catholic Civil Rights League also collects reports of anti-Catholic crimes. The league says that the period of May through August of 2021 saw more attacks on Catholic churches in Canada than any other period.

“Our politicians must speak out against this alarming trend and law enforcement officials must vigorously investigate all incidents of hate crimes against Catholics and charge those responsible,” the organization said.

The league maintains a Church Attacks Database on its website and accepts incident reports from the public. The database records incidents ranging in severity from the breaking of stained-glass windows to acts of desecration and church burnings. The league aims to maintain a database of arrests and convictions in such incidents.

“We will follow through to make sure that law enforcement responds with vigor to this alarming trend in anti-Catholic violence,” the league said.

The Catholic Civil Rights League was founded in 1985. It describes itself as an independent lay organization with a large national membership. Its chaplain is Archbishop Emeritus Adam Exner of Vancouver.

In November 2021 the league noted the “surge” in attacks against churches followed initial reports starting in May 2021 of possible unmarked graves on the property of former residential schools for indigenous Canadians, which were run by Catholic and Protestant entities under the supervision of the federal government.

The preliminary claims about the graves rely on the analysis of ground penetrating radar findings and have yet to be confirmed by exhumation and other analysis. It is also possible that the graves are from community graveyards and include remains of non-students and non-indigenous peoples of the area, including residential school staff and their families.

Sarah Beaulieu, the anthropologist who performed the initial radar testing near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, in July 2021 characterized the 215 radar signatures as “probable burials” and “targets of interest.” The use of ground detecting radar at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan was reported to have found 751 graves.

News reports erroneously depicted the possible graves as “mass graves” and often failed to clarify that the findings had not been confirmed. The reports appeared to have inspired church burnings and other vandalism.

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“There have been no indications that these attacks have been carried out by indigenous people and indigenous leaders were quick to condemn these acts of violence,” the Catholic Civil Rights League said in November. “Indeed, there were churches burned down on indigenous land and those serving indigenous Catholic communities.”

For decades, Catholic leaders, indigenous Canadians, and others have sought to address the legacy of Catholic organizations and institutions’ historic involvement in the residential schools, which sought forcibly to assimilate indigenous Canadians.

The final report on the residential schools from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in 2015 that the system was part of a policy of “cultural genocide.”

Some of the schools date to the 1870s. Attendance tended to be compulsory and children were often removed far from their families. The federal government provided poor oversight and few resources, while the schools themselves provided substandard education and negligent housing and care for their boarded students.

An estimated 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of disease, injury, neglect, or abuse over the decades. Tuberculosis was a major killer, as was influenza. The children disproportionately died from disease compared to non-indigenous Canadians.

Pope Francis apologized for the abuses at the residential schools in his visit to Canada last month.

Catholic leaders in other countries have voiced concern about an increase in crimes against churches.

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has counted at least 157 criminal incidents at Catholic churches in 37 states and the District of Columbia since May 2020. These include incidents of arson, the beheading of statues, vandalism with anti-Catholic language, and the defacing of headstones. Several of the vandalism incidents in the U.S. referred to the controversy over the residential schools in Canada.

In February 2022, French authorities said provisional figures indicated more than 800 anti-Christian incidents were reported in the country the previous year. France’s Interior Ministry recorded 996 anti-Christian acts in 2019, an average of 2.7 per day.

In France, vandalism and attacks on Christian churches often appear to lack any organized coordination or shared ideological motives. Many perpetrators appear to be disaffected young people, the psychologically disturbed or the homeless. Religious sites also suffer from neglect and a lack of maintenance by public authorities, who own France’s religious buildings under a 1905 law.

Nonetheless, there have been several high-profile terrorist incidents, including the 2016 murder of Father Jacques Hamel as he celebrated Mass at a Normandy church. His attackers were men aligned with the Islamic State.

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