Diocese continues to strengthen security at parishes, schools
FORT WORTH — Continuing efforts to strengthen security and safety at the parish and school level, the Diocese of Fort Worth is implementing the second phase of its protection plan.
“Protecting the faithful is a priority,” said Stephen Becht, diocesan director of real estate and construction. “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 next phase involves collaborating with Sabbath Shield, now known as Guardian Response security consultants, to recruit and train volunteer teams at each parish that will work closely with local law enforcement to provide safety during Masses or other large events.
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 will be armed and will provide additional “rings of security,” Becht said. They will 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, which will be strictly vetted and extensively trained, will make 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 will be parishioners selected by the pastor of the church. Currently, pastors are tasked with identifying two or three leaders to head this ministry.
Mike Short, co-owner of Guardian Response, 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 will 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.
Parishes that can 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.