Opponents of the Roman Catholic Church's positions on abortion and homosexuality say unprecedented vandalism at local Catholic churches in the last seven months is making it harder for them to get their message across convincingly.
Vandals make it "much more difficult because they anger people in the middle and damage the credibility of all of us who believe abortion should be legal and condoms should be available," said Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice.
At the same time, those who favor the church's policies say the attacks have strengthened their resolve. Such Catholics say they will not be intimidated nor turned aside from proclaiming that abortion is murder and the only "safe sex" for people risking sexually transmitted diseases is abstinence.
"This energizes me," said Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony. "I feel more courageous in articulating our beliefs and practices."
The latest vandalism happened last weekend at St. Catherine Laboure Church in Torrance and the headquarters of the Los Angeles Archdiocese in downtown Los Angeles. Vandals scrawled graffiti on walls, left behind red coat hangers and a mattress stuffed with animal entrails, and bolted a large wooden cross festooned with condoms to the church door.
In December, four area Catholic churches were splattered with red paint. The Torrance church had previously been hit three times by vandals and St. Francis of Assisi Church in Silver Lake has been damaged five times by paint-slinging vandals.
While spokesmen for AIDS activists, abortion-rights advocates and the leader of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women said they do not condone such violence, they also said they understand the perpetrators' "anger."
Tammy Bruce, head of the 4,000-member local NOW chapter, said the Catholic Church "will have to expect" such attacks. That is especially true, she said, in a diverse and opinionated city like Los Angeles when church leaders "assert a political position and meddle in people's private lives and try to legislate their views and lifestyles."
Vandalism, added Bruce, who is also a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act-Up, is "an expression of the larger frustration many of the people are feeling who . . . don't have any other way of expressing it."
The 2,500-member Act-Up LA has not been involved in vandalism at local Catholic facilities, spokesman Paul Sbrizzi said. But he added: "We certainly agree with the message behind what was done. As far as we're concerned, the Catholic Church is engaged in terrorism against women and gays and lesbians."
In December, about 50 activists organized by Act-Up LA disrupted Masses at four Los Angeles-area churches to protest Mahony's just-reiterated stand against the use of condoms to curb the spread of AIDS. No physical damage or violence occurred.
According to a wire service report, an unidentified spokeswoman for a group called Artists Against Religious Oppression claimed responsibility for last weekend's vandalism. She said the "message" was that the church should stay out of politics and medicine, stop its oppression of women, gays and lesbians, and stop preaching sin and lies.
Though churches have always been lightning rods for specific dissent, vandalism attacks "are relatively new and certainly disturbing," said Daniel Levitas, executive director of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta. A national resource center, the group responds to hate and bigotry-motivated activity.
In Los Angeles County, crimes against religious groups rose from 111 in 1988 to a record 125 last year, according to the Human Rights Commission. Graffiti was the most prevalent form of crime.
Those holding a wide variety of views about abortion, homosexuality and AIDS were united in agreeing that vandalism and violence are counterproductive.
"The AIDS activist community . . . believes in nonviolence as a principle, and vandalism is a form of violence," said Dave Johnson, who is resigning his job as Los Angeles' first AIDS coordinator. "Acts like what happened last Sunday play right into the hands of the opposition."
Attacks on Catholic institutions in Los Angeles County have caused the Human Rights commissioners to ponder whether the incidents were truly "anti-Catholic hate crimes" or "just anger."
The episodes protesting Catholic policies on abortion and AIDS were "specifically targeted against a dislike of church doctrine," concluded the commission's senior staff consultant, Bunny Nightwalker Hatcher. "It is indeed a hate crime. You cannot separate the (policy) statement from the faith," she said.
Levitas, of the Center for Democratic Renewal, disagrees.
In the past, attacks against Catholic churches were displays of anti-Catholicism "pure and simple, like the Ku Klux Klan," he said. But now, he reasons, property crimes against the church are not hate crimes because Catholicism as a whole is not under attack.
"It is a crime of intolerance but the primary motivation itself has to do with . . . disagreement over a specific and narrow question of doctrine," he said.