Parliament hears call to make attacks on clergy 'hate crimes'

(Photo: Robbie Ribeiro)

Diana Johnson MP has raised concerns violent attacks on clergy are growing in frequency.

The Labour MP for Hull North also enquired as to whether the Government should consider specifically designating these attacks as religious hate crimes, thereby giving them tougher penalties.

She made the suggestion to Church Commissioner representative Sir Tony Baldry during an exchange in the House of Commons.

"I think we all recognise the excellent work that the clergy do in our local communities and unfortunately at times they do put themselves in harm's way," she said.

"I wonder whether the Honourable Gentleman would support a Government review of these attacks and whether it's time to look at their designation as religious hate crimes."

Data gathered from 25 police forces by the social think tank 'Parliament Street' under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed a startling picture of the level of crimes committed against clergy in England. Telegraph religion editor John Bingham described it as being "as far removed from the traditional image of the English vicar as it is possible to imagine".

Some 200 attacks over the last five years have been uncovered so far. They range from low level cases of assault, to cases of stalking by obsessive parishioners, priests being beaten in their own churches, as well as dog and on at least one occasion human bites.

However, because the police do not record incidents against clergymen and women as a separate category, the records give only a glimpse of the scale of attacks Britain's Christian leaders face.

Parliament Street gathered the data recently as an attempt to highlight the level of sacrifice made by some Christian leaders serving their community. It is hoped that this evidence will present a compelling case to consider attacks on religious leaders as hate crimes, with suitably harsher punishments as a result.

The call comes after the murder of Reverend John Suddards, who was stabbed to death at his vicarage in Thornbury, near Bristol last February. The perpetrator was one Stephen Farrow who was also later jailed for the murder of Betty Yates, 77, a retired teacher from Bewdley in Worcestershire.

When Reverend Suddards's body was found, it was surrounded by pornography, party poppers, a condom wrapper, underwear, a canvas of Christ, and a mirror. A copy of the New Testament open at the letter of Jude was found on his chest, and a calendar of a semi-naked male model was covering the lower half of his body. Police concluded they had been deliberately placed there to sully Reverend Suddards' reputation.

Reverend Suddards was known for having an open door policy and had acknowledged before that such an approach to his ministry could put him in danger. He was known to have a tradition of keeping a lamp burning to indicate his availability to parishioners and anyone else in need.

Most of the incidents against priests fall within assault, actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm.

Below are some of the recorded instances of violence against clergy:

• In July 2013 in Goffs Oak, Hertfordshire, a priest attempting to challenge a man who had just been involved in a hit and run incident, and had ridden his motorbike into a parked car, was struck on the back of the head and knocked to the floor by what is only described in the police report as a "wooden object".
• In Lincolnshire in 2010 a priest had a dog set on him, which was recorded by the police as "assault with injury".
• Leicestershire police recorded an incident where a priest was pelted with sticks and stones after confronting people trespassing on church property.
• Reverend Tony Tooby in Bradford was pelted with stones and racially abused by Asian youths who later attempted to burn down his Victorian church.
• In 2011 Hertfordshire police recorded an attack against a church minister as: "Offender approached the Injured Party and bit fingers."

This kind of data is not new. In a 2008 survey of clergy in London by National Churchwatch, which provides personal safety advice, nearly half said they had been attacked within the 12 months prior. The organisation suggested that vicars should consider taking off their dog collars when travelling alone.

Director of Parliament Street Clare George-Hilley, was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying: "These shocking findings are a mere snapshot of the very real attacks made on Christian leaders across the country, which are all too often overlooked.

"It is totally unacceptable that people who dedicate their lives to supporting communities and improving lives are subjected to harassment, abuse and violent assaults in modern Britain.

"The Government has the opportunity to take steps to classify assaults on clergyman as a religious hate crime, sending a clear signal that faith can be practised freely and that it is protecting the people that make up the pillars of British communities."

A Church of England spokesman, also speaking in The Telegraph, said: "The men and women who serve as clergy in the Church of England are both leaders and servants to their churches and communities.

"Many have forsaken financial reward and other benefits to be priests and have done so willingly as part of their vocation and calling.

"They are often the subject of vilification for serving in the name of Christ, and largely bear such comments with good humour. However as these figures show they also bear the brunt of more vicious and brutal attack.

"The changing nature of the debate around faith, with its increasing intolerance and stridency serves as an unhelpful backdrop to a rise in such attacks".