Nativity vandalism

The Rev. John Delaney, pastor of Sacred Hearts Parish, looks at the creche in front of Sacred Hearts Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts where a model of the baby Jesus was stolen early Christmas morning and replaced with the severed head of a pig.

The grisly vandalism of a Massachusetts church's nativity scene making national headlines Friday may be investigated as a hate crime motivated by "prejudice to a religion," according to police. 

On Christmas morning, a model of the Baby Jesus was stolen from the nativity scene in front of Sacred Hearts Church in Haverhill and replaced with a severed pig's head.

No arrests had been made as of late Friday morning. Police Detective Lt. Robert Pistone said police also hope to learn whether those responsible tortured or killed the animal to use for the crime. 

"Somebody put some thought into what they were going to do," Pistone said. "It was certainly and intentional act, a symbolic act."

Pistone said police are asking the assistance of the public in identifying the person or persons responsible. He said police are also asking for the assistance of local farms and butcher shops, which may be sources of the animal's head. Pistone said the head appeared to have been "freshly decapitated."

"It's not necessarily the kind of pig sold at a butcher shop," Pistone said. "The hair appears intact and they usually burn it off."

He said police will be checking surveillance cameras in the area of the church in hopes of identifying a suspect or suspects.

Pistone said those responsible had forcefully removed a Plexiglas panel that protected the manger scene then set the clear panel back in place.

Sacred Hearts Pastor the Rev. John Delaney said that because the panel was fogged up due to temperature changes, parishioners who walked past the nativity scene on their way to the 7:30 a.m. Christmas day Mass apparently did not notice anything out of place.

Haverhill mayor James Fiorentini said he was outraged and that it had the elements of a hate crime.

"It doesn't represent our community," Fiorentini said.

"Somebody must know about this," Fiorentini said. "We will solve this." 

Delaney said regional Bishop Robert Hennessey will be co-celebrant at Saturday's 4 p.m. Mass and that immediately following the Mass they will bless the nativity scene.

"It's shocking and sad and I hope there is healing and that something good comes out of this," Delaney said.

Those who attended Christmas morning Masses at the church were told that the Baby Jesus had been stolen from the creche. 

It wasn't until police notified the media late Christmas day that members of the parish and the rest of the community learned the gruesome truth.

"I couldn't believe what I heard," long-time Sacred Hearts parishioner Joe Hart said late Friday morning. "What in the world would drive someone to do something as low as this?" 

During a press conference held in front of the Haverhill police station on Friday morning, Rev. Delaney said people are horrified that something like this could happen, but said the incident could serve to build bridges of friendship and love within the community, including the parish, which has a about 3,000 families. 

Delaney said that about 7:15 a.m. Chirstmas day, he was preparing to celebrate the the 7:30 a.m. Mass when the Rev. Benjamin LeTran, associate pastor, told him of his discovery. 

Delaney said LeTran was walking past the creche in front of the church when he noticed something something dark behind the moisture-clouded Plexiglas that covered the front of the manger scene. Delaney said the last time the creche appeared to be intact was at 1:30 a.m., shortly after the Christmas Eve midnight Mass. 

Delaney said the Plexiglas appeared to have been dislodged then set back in place and that the model of the Baby Jesus was gone - replaced with the pig's head. Delaney said the police were notified and removed the animal's head. He said police took the Plexiglas panel as evidence.

Delaney said parishioners who walked past the nativity scene following the 7:30 a.m. Christmas day Mass and who asked about the missing Baby Jesus were told that it had been stolen. Delaney said it was replaced with a model of the Baby Jesus that was in a creche in the church's lower level, in time for the 11:30 a.m. Mass.

Delaney said a neighbor, Brenda Burns, subsequently gave the church a model of the Baby Jesus from her own nativity scene and that the one borrowed from the lower level of the church was put back in its place.

Mike LaBella writes for the Eagle-Tribune

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