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December 16th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

Crime-fighting priest hits the streets

By Kate Bolduan and Eric Marrapodi, CNN

It was the murder of 75-year-old Tom Repchic that was the final straw for Father Greg Maturi, a Dominican priest in Youngstown, Ohio.

Repchic and his wife, Jackie, were shot near Saint Dominic's Church in September. Jackie Repchic had to have a leg amputated because of her injuries and is recovering.

"We're a very close-knit family and try to help each other out however we can. You can go to Tom for anything," said his sister-in-law Rita Blasko. "It was a terrible day. Very hard. You're trying to mourn for Tom and you still have Jackie. It's very difficult. ...We just miss him, and he will never be replaced."

Surrounded by family, the pain of their loss still evident in their faces, Blasko said, "I don't think any of us will ever get over this."

Police investigators say it was a case of mistaken identity. Tom Repchic's car looked similar to the person the killers were looking for. Repchic was the second parishioner in just eight months to be killed in the shadow of Saint Dominic's.

"After the second murder, I said enough is enough. And I decided I needed to get more involved with the neighborhood because as goes the neighborhood, so goes the church," Maturi said while strolling the snow-filled streets of Youngstown's southside, the center of the recent violence plaguing the town.

"Whatever Youngstown has been doing up until now hasn't been working," Maturi said. "We need to take another approach."

So he stepped off the pulpit and into the streets to take on the crime where it lives.

He took a list of 20 homes to Mayor Jay Williams, saying the vacant properties needed to come down immediately. Williams agreed and added seven more to the list.

"I will not allow, we will not allow, these crimes as heinous as they are to define the city," Williams said.

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams launched Operation Redemption to try to fight crime by ripping down abandoned houses.

They call the plan Operation Redemption. The initiative is simple but aggressive - battle the recent violence by tearing down the abandoned homes that have become havens for criminal activity, then hope to stem the tide of residents fleeing the city.

"At minimum it removes the blight, it removes the haven for criminals, it removes targets of arsonists. It allows property owners to recognize and feel like their neighborhood is being transformed," Williams said on a recent walk past several of the derelict properties.

Operation Redemption aims to rip down abandoned houses like this one.

Youngstown has faced many of the challenges of other Rust Belt cities. As the steel industry fell, the population shrank by more than half in the past few decades. The population hovers around 75,000, and Williams says he doubts it will ever return to the days when it was more than 170,000.

With the population decline came a huge increase in vacant and abandoned homes.

Abandon houses line the streets in Youngstown’s southside.

Jimmy Hughes has been a cop for more than 30 years. He is now the city's police chief and says urban blight has been a huge factor in the city's crime.

"When the house burglaries happen, they break into one house and they're stashing stolen property in some of these vacant homes. Some of the prostitutes we have in some of the neighborhoods, they're using vacant homes for their street hotels," Hughes said. "I could put a cop on every corner and it would still be the same. I could put a cop on every street and every corner and these [crimes] would still occur because we'd still be overwhelmed by them."

Youngstown Police Chief Jimmy Hughes, left, takes CNN Correspondent Kate Bolduan through the southside.

Hughes said he fully supports the mayor joining forces with Maturi. "If nothing else, the neighborhood knows, they believe they have a safer place to live with these [houses] not here," Hughes said.

Most of the homes targeted by this initiative surround Saint Dominic's, which many in Youngstown view as the last stronghold of the community. Maturi said it is not only his civic duty to step in, but also what his faith teaches him - to help those who cannot help themselves.

"We're not separate from the neighborhood. We're one with the neighborhood and the church is here to help the neighborhood," he said.

The city has promised that all of the more than two dozen homes on the initial list will be torn down by the beginning of 2011.

Both Williams and Maturi hope it's the first real, tangible step in the right direction to revitalize the city. However, the project has not been without speed bumps.

It costs the city about $3,000 to demolish each house, and federal red tape has slowed the process. The Environmental Protection Agency has required the city to conduct asbestos abatement in many of the buildings, which the city says is prohibitively expensive.

"The EPA is worried about lead in paint. We're worried about lead in bullets," Maturi said. "What's more important?"

All the while, some residents, including the family of Tom Repchic, fear nothing is going to turn this desperate situation around.

"I commend Father and I hope what he's doing will help, but I just don't see it getting better," Blasko said.

Surprisingly, with crime and murder happening right outside his front door, Maturi says battling the hopelessness among his parishioners and the community is his toughest fight yet.

"My biggest problem is not fear of being attacked by gangs or whatever. My biggest problem is keeping people from falling into despair and becoming cynical," he said. "That is a tougher fight than a physical fight."

By putting such a public face on a dangerous battle, some now fear Maturi has also made himself a target. But almost like a superhero in a comic book, Maturi quickly responded, "That may well be the case, but that's not going to slow me down. ...This is why I became a priest. This is what a priest does."

CNN's Jeremy Moorhead contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Death • Houses of worship • Mass • Ohio • TV • United States • Violence

soundoff (174 Responses)
  1. HPNIII

    Try using using the Kenassaw model of prevention. Kenaassaw Ga. passed a law requiring all citizens to own a gun, bet they don't have near the crime rate as Youngstown.

    December 16, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  2. answerman28

    You can live in fantasy world and have faith.. even make a career out of it but in the real world having faith isnt going to stop the thugs from taking this guy down.. its too bad and only a matter of time. Somebody has got to talk some sense into ihim. He's a good guy with good intentions but obviosily he has no common sense.. he believes in sky faries.. cmon now... If you know this man, help him before its too late.

    December 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • David

      heh, I always joke how atheists can't post without ranting about Palin, Bush Fox news, Christians and/or "sky fairies". Well, there we go....
      It's ridiculous that you're here preaching against faith, trying to "help" this man (hm, sounding like some street corner evangelist?), when he's actually trying to help the situation. I don't even know what you're on about with half of your rant. Nowhere does it say anything about him thinking faith alone will protect him from thugs, and there's nothing foolish about what he's doing. It's admirable, and more people need to step up to help out. Admit it, you're only here because you had to somehow argue with a priest doing some good, and turn it around to fit your worldview.

      December 16, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • the unknown

      @ David answerman is like most athiests. Complains, makes snide remarks, and things he's better than most people but never helps. He sounds alot like the Evangicals he hates so much.

      December 16, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Answerman28,

      You have faith…but just not in doing good because your fear keeps you in hiding. But there is hope…if just one good man comes out into the Light, others get courage and join in for the good of all. Father Maturi has more than common sense, obviously, and there will be plenty of people who recognize this and want to be a part of something that means hope for the future of that town.

      December 16, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
  3. Kacy

    Youngstown, Lowelville, Struthers are all ghost towns. Every summer for the past 20 yrs I'd vacation up there to visit family. This last decade has left them deserted, especially the downtown areas. Hope this plan works because it looks slummier with each passing year.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  4. MEEE

    I AM A PRIEST SEND ME A LITTLE BOY

    December 16, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
    • David

      Aaaand the atheist trolls have arrived. Class and maturity all the way.

      December 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • Bob

      And the baseless stereotypes have arrived, class and intelligence all the way.

      December 16, 2010 at 10:24 pm |
  5. toby

    This man is not just a priest, he is God himself. I applaud what he is doing and hope that he brings others to God throught the torture and bloody human sacrifice of his son (himself, actually) where he died (well, for a few hours anyway) for us all (at least so the story goes) so that we may live with him in heaven (a great place for which no evidence or photographs exist) until the end of time. Regardless, at least this priest isn't raping kids and hiding out in the Vatican.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  6. dave

    cut the police saleries on the top then you will see crime go down.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  7. Nile

    From Wikipedia: "The racial makeup of the city is roughly 51% White, 44% Black or African American, and 5% Hispanic or Latino of any race."

    This would have been enough to suggest that Youngstown is a dangerous place. Maybe there was organized crime back when it was overwhelmingly white, but the city was no doubt a much, much safer place as well.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • HPNIII

      Question, is there any such thing as a high crime area that is not predominately black.

      December 16, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • David

      Careful, showing statistics that correlate crime with ethnicity makes you a racist! (/sarcasm) You're not allowed to show any indication that any non-caucasian ethnic groups may be more prone to violence/crime than others. 😉

      December 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • J

      All neighborhoods that are crime ridden aren't all black neighborhoods. Its a poverty and drug related problem within that area and it doesn't matter what race the people are. I'm sure there are "white" crime ridden neighborhoods too. Saying that all black neighborhoods are crime ridden doesn't make you racist it just makes you uninformed.

      December 16, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  8. Blessed Geek

    I remember reading David Wilkerson – The cross and the switchblade 30 years ago.

    Evangelicals are a pain in the -- but David Wilkerson is a breed of his own. I think many evangelicals call him a cult leader because he denounces their prosperity cults.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  9. ezcaped

    I grew up in Ytown. When I go home to visit and ride around some parts, it now looks like a war zone in some areas and it is so sad to remember being in some areas when i was younger having fun. Now I wouldnt dare to ride through in an armored tank. People in YTown are good people then enter the slime killing the old and innocent. I'm glad this got attention and hope the positive twist to this is what people see that don't really know the town. Doing anything is better that nothing. EPA needs to get busy with something else for awhile...God Bless

    December 16, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  10. A

    I understand the concern about knocking down asbestos-filled houses without an inspection, but shouldn't there be some financial assistance from the government if they are going to require the inspections? Unfortunately, due to the decline in the steel industry and the corruption that took place in Youngstown for years, the city is poor. There are actually some citizens who want to help revive the city, and I think that there should be some type of assistance for a project like this. These houses need to be torn down–as the article says, the population has dramatically decreased and these houses are vacant for long periods of time. This only means that there are more places for criminals to conduct their crimes in the privacy of a house. There needs to be more money put into programs like this so that towns like Youngstown have the opportunity to rebuild themselves and contribute positively to the economy of the U.S.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  11. Youngstowner

    The entire city of Youngstown needs to be leveled (EPS or No EPA) and a fence built around it. Dump all criminals inside the fence ala 'Escape from New York'. Everyone in the city is a prisioner of their zip code.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Clevelander

      Our city council put that on the ballot last election but we couldn't get the levy passed. Mob demolition is just too expensive these days never mind the cost of the fence.

      December 16, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
  12. born again

    i was a thug for 30 years until someone like him reached out to me and showed me that someone does care about me...those thugs need love too...i don't expect you to agree but that is what Christains do.

    December 16, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  13. gg

    All you Haters, if you give a lil love for a change, maybe you wouldn't be so jealous & negative. Maybe your parents would love you for a change. Congratulations Nick & Mriah!

    December 16, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  14. born again

    but the preist cares about the thugs

    December 16, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  15. kenberthiaume

    it's a complete waste of time. The thugs don't care about this priest...they will wait until he goes away and continue robbing and raping at will. Liberalism has destroyed the inner cities. Most priests are pretty liberal too...always being for "the poor" never telling the poor people to get their act together. He is a tilting at windmills. Pointless.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
    • Drake

      Amen.

      The article, of course, makes no mention of the, um, "ethnic" aspects of Youngstown's woes.

      December 16, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  16. born again

    Father's protection is found in MARK 16:18

    December 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
  17. Beeeeeeeeeeeee

    By crime, he means little boys? And face first he means ... oh dear God.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  18. CINTIJACK

    Dayton does look so bad now.

    December 16, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  19. AH

    I live in Youngstown. I was born in Youngstown. To constantly hear people bash my hometown is pretty much numb to me now. When I heard about this story locally, I was so happy to see that there was finally someone pushing our local police and government to do what so many have been begging them to do for YEARS!!! I, too, commend Father Maturi, and shame on Mayor Williams and Chief Hughes for not stepping up sooner. If they would have taken people's pleads into more serious consideration years ago, the red tape of the EPA could have been cleared by now!! I'm glad to call Youngstown home, we just need more people Father Maturi to turn our stereotype around!!!

    December 16, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  20. ObjectiveGuy

    Father Maturi is clearly a good man, and should be supported in his efforts. We need more courageous individuals like him. God bless!

    December 16, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.