Westmeath’s priests have been advised to wear panic buttons by the gardaí.
The advice was given to the local clergy at the Meath Diocese’s recent annual assembly in Navan following a series of break-ins at parochial houses and churches in recent years.
Sgt Denis Kerins who gave a talk on personal safety to the assembled clergy from Westmeath, Meath and Offaly, said that priests have become “easy targets” for criminals.
“Since I took up this position (as Meath’s crime prevention officer) four years ago, I’ve become aware of numerous thefts on priests and in church grounds. There hasn’t been a spike in attacks on the clergy but incidents have been consistent over a number of years.
“Unfortunately, priests have an open door policy for people, which increases the risk to their personal safety.”
Ballymore’s parish priest Fr Philip Smith has had a panic button or “helpline button” for a number of years and says that clergy or not, anyone living alone, particular if they are elderly, should have one.
“You put in a watch or around your neck. It’s essential if you are living on your own in case you are attacked or have a heart attack. I chose three people in the parish and gave them a key to the house and God forbid anything happens they are called, and if one of them doesn’t answer, then the people running the helpline will call the gardaí.
“It’s very good and I encourage my parishioners who are living alone to get one.”
Like many priests living in rural communities Fr Smith has been the victim of crime.
“About seven or eight years ago, they came in here but they didn’t get a lot and after Christmas someone lifted the statue of our lady out of the crib. It happened around December 28 or 29. It’s not the value of the thing but it was donated by a person many moons ago.
“They must be collecting them or something because one was taken from a church in Longford too. I hope whoever took it is praying to Our Lady,” he said.
Fr Smith has been the parish priest in Ballymore since 1991 and says that his parishioners are more worried than ever before about crime in the area.
“Just down the road I heard that a 4x4 was lifted and a new trailer. We are in a community alert scheme and that helps a lot. It’s brings the community together. The guard is only here on certain hours and people are more definitely.”