June 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Church Fires Not A Plot, Study Finds Various Motives Behind Arsons, Special Panel Announces

Naftali Bendavid Chicago Tribune
 

A coordinated effort to solve the nationwide spate of church burnings has paid off with arrests in more than one-third of the cases, leaders of a special government task force announced Sunday.

And despite early fears that the arsons were part of a large-scale racist conspiracy, there is little evidence of a nationwide plot, according to the National Church Arson Task Force’s report. While racism indeed lurked behind many of the blazes, other motives were found as well.

“The arsons - at both African American and other houses of worship - were motivated by a wide array of factors, including not only blatant racism or religious hatred, but also financial profit, burglary and personal revenge,” the report concluded.

The task force, spearheaded by the Justice and Treasury departments, was created a year ago by President Clinton in response to complaints from African American ministers that the church burnings were not being pursued seriously enough.

Sunday’s report is the first official update on the nation’s success in tackling the church arson epidemic.

Investigations have been launched into 429 fires or bombings at houses of worship, including 11 synagogues and four mosques, since January 1995 - significantly more than the 200 to 300 arsons that have been reported previously.

Police, including agents of the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, have arrested 199 suspects in connection with 150 of the fires and bombings.

While that 35 percent arrest rate may not sound high, task force leaders stressed it is more than twice the 16 percent for arsons generally.

“Arsons are extremely difficult to solve,” said Assistant Treasury Secretary James Johnson, co-chair of the task force, in announcing the findings. “Evidence burns, gets destroyed. So it’s remarkable that we’ve achieved these results.”

Of the 199 arrested, 110 have been convicted.

The task force leaders’ generally self-congratulatory assessment was backed up by pastors from the National Council of the Churches of Christ.

The pastors, many of whom were complaining a year ago that federal agents were investigating, even harassing, them instead of more likely suspects, voiced general support for the administration’s efforts Sunday.

But they also vowed to keep the pressure on. “While we thank the administration for its rapid response, we continue to want to impress on the administration that this is only the beginning,” said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the church group.

The arsons have been concentrated in the South. Only one of the church burnings solved so far is in Illinois. In October 1996, the First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, Ill., was burned and swastikas were painted on it. Four juveniles pleaded guilty.

The report also underscored what an increasing number of observers have suspected recently: that the phenomenon reflects more a bizarre mix of confused motives than an outbreak of organized bigotry.

For example, only 162 of the 429 burned churches are African American. And of the 81 suspects arrested for arsons at African American churches, 25 are themselves African American.

“Instead of a broad-based conspiracy, we’re seeing small conspiracies, usually regionally based within a state,” Johnson said.”Many of the arsons were committed by individuals acting alone.”

Which is not to say that racism did not play a big part. Mary Frances Berry, Chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, estimated last October that roughly one-fifth of the church burnings have been race-related.

And the Rev. Robert Jeffrey of New Hope Baptist Church in Seattle, which was torched in 1995, asserted Sunday that federal investigators sometimes do not explore racial motives in arsons outside the South.

“It’s terror perpetrated against people of color who have no defense,” Jeffrey said.

The arsons, which peaked in June 1996, have tailed off significantly, but not entirely. The task force launched 17 investigations in March, 21 in April, and 12 in May.

Whatever its success, the task force has been unable to answer one nagging question: If there is no coordinated racist conspiracy, then what is behind the rash of church fires?

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