Church officials at downtown Fresno’s St. John’s Cathedral knew they had a man living in a car in their parking lot. But the church has a history of serving the poor and downtrodden, so they never asked him to leave.
Then someone cut off the head and hands from a life-size marble statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Video evidence pointed to the man in the car.
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Now Paul Anthony Torrez, a 51-year-old homeless man who it turns out is also a convicted sex offender, is in Fresno County Jail, and the cathedral is thinking of moving another prominent statue, of the Virgin Mary, into a more protective gated courtyard.
At a court hearing on Wednesday, Judge Brian Alvarez suspended criminal proceedings and ordered a doctor to examine Torrez when his lawyer called into question his mental competency. Torrez is accused of felony vandalism and failing to register as a sex offender.
I felt disturbed that someone would damage and destroy such beautiful art.
Father Michael Andrade
On Thursday, Fresno attorney Michael Berdinella, who is presenting the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, said: “It’s unfortunate that this had to happen.” He said the parish is trying to get a restraining order against Torrez to prevent him from coming on church grounds.
According to Berdinella, parish officials don’t want Torrez to get punished, but want him to get help through the criminal justice system. “Our hope is that one day he can be rehabilitated and become a productive citizen,” Berdinella said.
Founded in 1882, St. John’s Cathedral at R and Mariposa streets is the mother church of the local diocese, serving the elderly, the poor and downtrodden. The red brick structure with two majestic spires is well known for its special annual Mass for police, firefighters and first responders, and another annual Mass for judges, lawyers and public officials.
But the church has been the target of vandals before. In October 2013, a vandal damaged a 110-year old door to the sacristy inside the cathedral.
It’s unfortunate that this had to happen.
Fresno lawyer Michael Berdinella
St. Francis of Assisi is commonly known as the patron saint of animals who cared for the poor and sick, preached sermons to animals, and praised all creatures as brothers and sisters under God.
According to a court declaration by Father Michael Andrade, the parochial vicar at St. John’s Cathedral, in late July a vandal broke the door to the cathedral’s basement at night and went inside to destroy a nativity set, including statues of the three Wise Men.
“I felt disturbed that someone would damage and destroy such beautiful art,” the declaration says. “It made me fearful of what further actions such an individual could perpetrate.”
Andrade’s declaration says the cathedral’s video surveillance cameras captured the vandal “walking about in our courtyard, swinging a long metal pipe, and talking to himself. This made me extremely fearful for my personal safety because I regularly have to pass alone, through that same courtyard at night to reach my car in the garage.”
Church officials called police on July 31, but officers were unable to get fingerprints of the vandal off the wooden, dusty statues, which were valued around $6,000, a police report said. In the report, officers said the surveillance video of the church grounds showed a man who “appeared to be moving as if he was fighting an invisible enemy.”
Then on Aug. 7, Andrade said he learned that the parish’s life-sized statute of St. Francis of Assisi, which sits on concrete pedestal facing R Street, had been decapitated and its hands chopped off. The statue is worth around $16,500 court records say.
Police found in Torrez’s car a three-foot metal pole that ‘had pieces of white fragments on it.’
In his declaration, Andrade says video from the surveillance camera showed the vandal “in front of the cathedral trying to enter the church, speaking to himself, and acting bizarrely.”
After police were called, officers found Torrez in the parish parking lot, where he had been sleeping in his car for several days. A police report says Torrez matched the description of the vandal in the surveillance video, but he denied decapitating the statues and nativity set. Police, however, found in Torrez’s car a three-foot metal pole that “had pieces of white fragments on it,” a police report says. In addition, Andrade and other church officials identified Torrez as the vandal, the report says.
Berdinella said on Thursday that homeless people find refuge at the parish and that church officials knew Torrez was living in the parish parking lot, but never asked him to leave. Church officials did not know Torrez was a registered sex offender, though. “He needed help and had no where to go,” Berdinella said.
The parish doesn’t have money to replace the statue or nativity set, Berdinella said. Because of the vandalism, church officials are thinking of moving a statue of the Virgin Mary along R Street inside a gated courtyard on the parish property where other statues are kept. “We can’t leave it out because there are too many people who do bad things today,” he said.
Saving St. Francis
St. John’s Cathedral is seeking donations to repair the St. Francis statue. Anyone wishing to help can send donations to St. John’s Cathedral, 2814 Mariposa St, Fresno, CA 93721. For more information call 559-485-6210.