Bishop Olson prays for victims of church shooting; offers update on diocesan security

North Texas Catholic
(Dec 30, 2019) Local

Police and fire department officials in White Settlement, Texas, surround West Freeway Church of Christ Dec. 29, 2019. A gunman killed two parishioners there that same day. (CNS photo/Yffy Yossifor, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, TNS,ABACAPRESS.COM via Reuters)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story updates an April 5, 2019 article on diocesan safety and security.

FORT WORTH — Upon hearing of the shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ, Bishop Michael Olson said, “I ask all priests, deacons, religious women and men, seminarians, and lay faithful of the Diocese of Fort Worth to please pray with me for those who were affected by the hateful act of violence in the sanctuary of a community of brother and sister Christians at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement.”

A gunman opened fire during the December 29 Sunday service, killing two before he was fatally shot by members of the church security team.

The quick response of the church security team is credited with ending the shooting in six seconds.

Governor Greg Abbott praised the church security team in a statement, “Places of worship are meant to be sacred, and I am grateful for the church members who acted quickly to take down the shooter and help prevent further loss of life.”

In the Diocese of Fort Worth, continuing efforts to strengthen security and safety at the parish and school level include recruiting and training volunteer teams that work closely with local law enforcement to provide safety during Masses or other large events.

This training, implemented in collaboration with Sabbath Shield, now known as Guardian Response security consultants, is the second phase of increasing physical safety and security in the diocese.

Mike Short, co-owner of Guardian Response, said, “Guardian Response is working diligently with the Diocese of Fort Worth to recruit, screen, and train parishioners to prevent and to respond to incidents like the one that our brothers and sisters in Christ experienced this weekend.”

“Protecting the faithful is a priority,” said Stephen Becht, diocesan director of real estate and construction, in a previous interview with the NTC. “Because the bishop as shepherd wants to protect the souls [of local faithful], but also protect them while they’re worshipping, in a welcoming way.”

The aim of the teams is to thwart crisis situations and provide “decisive and life-saving action during emergencies while supporting the role of first responders until their arrival,” Monsignor E. James Hart, diocesan Chancellor and Moderator of the Curia, said in a memo.

Some of the volunteers in these teams are armed and provide additional “rings of security,” Becht said. They operate similarly to FAA sky marshals — covert officers who provide in-flight security. Many parishioners won’t even notice who belongs to the security team, Becht said.

Medical teams will also be formed and trained in advanced first aid, including the use of blood clotting powder and gauze that the military uses. “We are requiring each church to have a first aid kit with all the most advanced first aid available,” Becht said.

The armed protection team, strictly vetted and extensively trained, makes up the inner ring of security, in order to “protect the lives of parishioners from worst case scenarios like the Sutherland Springs shooting,” Msgr. Hart said.

Already in place, Becht added, are outer rings of security comprising laity walking the premises and parking lots, welcome or greeting ministers at the front doors of parishes, and ushers — all of whom have been trained in identifying suspicious behavior and body language. These team members will continue receiving safety training.

The armed volunteers are parishioners selected by the pastor of the church. Currently, pastors are tasked with identifying two or three leaders to head this ministry. Parishioners who are interested in joining the parish security ministry must contact their pastor to express an interest in serving. All individuals must undergo background checks before being admitted into a parish security ministry. Once an individual is accepted into the ministry, extensive and mandatory training is required.

Short, in a video sent to parish leaders, recommended volunteers who are committed, organized, relational, and able to make wise decisions. “Law enforcement personnel or people with prior military experience may be good fits for this type of leadership role within your parish, but it’s not a requirement.”

Becht emphasized that these teams undergo an extensive, multi-step vetting process. Once selected, they will undergo training under Guardian Response emphasizing de-escalation training, self-defense, gun proficiency, and familiarity and coordination with local police.

Many parishes that hire active police officers for security at Masses and other major events are encouraged to do so and would work in conjunction with the parish’s armed protection team.

The first phase of the diocese’s security plan saw all parishes and schools undergo vulnerability assessments by Guardian Response. Out of that came suggestions for improving security, like putting crisis procedures in place, installing cameras and fencing, and more. Parishes were encouraged to revisit their emergency plans and contact their local law enforcement agencies for further recommendations.

Assessments by Guardian Response also resulted in parishes and schools taking down the “gun-free zone” signs “because the data says that the large majority of mass shootings in public places occur in gun-free zones,” Becht said.

The directive banning guns on church property and school campuses remains in effect. The notices, however, are now displayed in the bulletins rather than on the buildings, Short told the NTC. Permission to carry on church property is limited to active police officers and the vetted and trained members of the protection team ministry.

“This will allow the teams to properly screen those who should not be carrying a gun, while maintaining an armed presence in the case of an emergency,” Short explained.

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