Yvonne Abraham

Crime can’t erode grace

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / December 5, 2010

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It’s official. Nothing is sacred.

Father Jack Ahern pulled a heavy gold curtain away from the tabernacle at St. Peter’s on Bowdoin Street on Friday morning, revealing battered brass doors that barely shut anymore.

Somebody went to the most important place in the church — a place Catholics believe contains the living presence of Christ — and whaled on it with a hammer.

“Maybe they thought it was a safe,’’ Ahern said, hopefully.

You know things are bad when they start knocking off churches. And judging by the number of churches knocked off recently, things are very bad indeed.

“I’m seeing levels of desperation out there I haven’t seen for a long while,’’ said the gray-haired 57-year-old.

He would know. Like most priests and ministers, he sees a lot of people who live on the margins. They come to the three Dorchester churches he oversees for food and laundry money and help with the rent. They come because they don’t belong anywhere else.

And sometimes they come to steal. There have been 15 break-ins at Boston-area churches in the last few months. And that’s just the Catholic ones.

There’s usually an uptick in robberies this time of year. People with mental or emotional issues can be undone by the holidays, and they’re the ones most likely to break into a church, said Joe McEnness, who is in charge of risk management for the Boston Archdiocese. It’s also a time when financial pressures make people do crazy things.

But usually, that means two or three break-ins for the season, not 15.

Ahern had three robberies in November: One at his rectory, where he woke one morning to see a man making off with cash and his ring; one at St. Peter’s, where somebody smashed a stained-glass window, hammered at the tabernacle and ripped the poor boxes off the walls; and one at Blessed Mother Teresa. He didn’t know about that one until a man arrested on suspicion of another robbery told police he’d also stolen from the Columbia Road church.

That man’s name is Michael Bagley, and Ahern has known him for 16 years. The gaunt, mentally ill, homeless man often came to the Dorchester churches for food and to wash up. Some mornings, Ahern would open up St. Peter’s to find Bagley had spent the night. He doesn’t think he would batter a tabernacle.

“There’s a certain sadness and melancholy to him,’’ Ahern said. “He was so gentle and grateful, it was easy to give him things.’’

On Thursday, police arrested a man they believe is responsible for some other church robberies, and Ahern knew him, too. Richard Shiner sometimes used the food pantry at Blessed Mother Teresa.

Churches are easy targets, and these thefts aren’t going to change that. Sure, they can empty the poor boxes and make sure the doors and windows are locked at night. But there’s only so much you can do without undermining what a church stands for.

To give respite from the chaos outside, churches need to remain open as much as possible; they need gifts of cash so they have something to give; and they need to keep welcoming men like Bagley.

“We have to continue to do these things if we are going to be faithful to Christ,’’ Ahern said.

Ahern thinks that faithfulness is why Bagley — and probably others — stole from churches in the first place.

“I’m sure he has a sense that . . . he’d find forgiveness here,’’ Ahern said.

If Bagley comes back — and Ahern wants him to — the priest will sit him down and ask why he didn’t just ask for whatever he needed. And then Ahern would give him whatever he needed.

So, nothing is sacred, except this: No matter what the Michael Bagleys of the world do, the Jack Aherns will always unlock the door and let them in.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at