Harrisburg City Council takes closer look at handling of church collapse

Harrisburg City Council took a closer look Tuesday at how emergency responders handle condemned properties and the properties’ owners after police arrested Bishop A.E. Sullivan in February when a vacant church he owned partially collapsed.

Sullivan’s supporters urged council to hold the meeting, criticizing how the bishop’s was arrested in front of the media.

“People can destroy you by humiliating you and shaming you, and that’s what was done,” said Rev. Earl Harris.

City Council was advised by legal counsel not to address the issue directly during Tuesday’s two-and-a-half hour meeting while Sullivan’s criminal case and separate civil actions move forward in court.

However, Police Chief Tom Carter defended how the situation was handled.

“My officers did nothing wrong. The protocol was followed,” said Carter. “And, until something comes out to change my mind, I stand behind my officers.”

Dave Patton, head of codes enforcement, said there are 364 condemned buildings in the city. Demolishing Sullivan’s church at 12th and Magnolia streets cost more than $132,000. Patton said money and manpower were some of the challenges in tackling the larger issue of blight in the city.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse said Sullivan had been aware of structural issues with the church since 2009, when the city first condemned it. Since then, neighbors had complained about the church’s deterioration.

“I think the community wants blight eradicated. They want individuals that are not responsive held responsible,” said Papenfuse.

Rev. Harris argued the manner in which police arrested Sullivan was unfair.

“Would they have arrested the bishop of the Roman Catholic Church?” asked Harris.

Papenfuse responded, “If there are other bishops that had outstanding arrest warrants who were in contact with the police, they would have been arrested too.”

Bishop Sullivan attended Tuesday’s meeting but declined to comment.

Joyce Davis, spokeswoman for Mayor Papenfuse, said neighbors who had been forced out of their homes because of the collapse were told Tuesday they could return home now that the demolition crew has torn down the building.