At first, Pastor Ray Bagnuolo said he thought the rainbow flag outside of his church in Long Island, New York, “had just been blown off.”
That was July 29, police say, but then the LGBT-affirming flag kept vanishing outside of the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ — including once in September, three times in October and again in early November, according to ABC7.
The pastor put a sign up outside of his church in August to send a message to the person who was responsible, according to News12.
“It is an act of hate. Do you realize that?” the sign read, according to the outlet.
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Now, police have arrested 21-year-old Ronald Tyler Witt after they say an investigation connected him to the crime, according to Patch. He faces six charges of petit larceny as a hate crime.
Police say they used interviews and surveillance video to catch him, according to Newsday.
Bagnuolo — who is gay, according his biography published by The LGBTQ Religious Archives Network — says he forgives Witt. He told News12 in a TV interview that “if we have the opportunity, we would rather talk through something with you.
“I’m sad that somebody does these things,” the pastor told News12 in a TV interview. “It’s an indication of anger and potential violence.”
He said the repeated thefts of the rainbow flags made him fear for the safety of his congregants, according to the New York Daily News.
“The congregation is fully welcoming. It has always been out there welcoming people across the spectrum,” Bagnuolo said, according to the newspaper. “We put Stars of David, and put up crosses after each mass shooting, so we’re very socially active. This activity was very concerning to us.”
Authorities say Witt revealed his true motives for the crimes when he told officers that he simply “didn’t want to see a gay flag on a church.” But stealing the flag was just a “prank,” a defense attorney for Witt said in court Wednesday, according to ABC7.
Bagnuolo says it wasn’t a laughing matter, and that’s why he posted the sign that read, “IT WAS NOT KIND. IT IS HURTFUL,” according to ABC7.
“The sign was meant to say, you know, look, do you know what you’re doing here? Do you realize this is hateful, it’s harmful, it’s hurtful?” Bagnuolo said, according to ABC7. “I think there’s something there. I think it’s a statement.”
But despite offering to talk it over with Witt, the pastor says he won’t get off the hook.
Witt was given a $12,000 bail, according to News12.
In September, a priest at the Resurrection Catholic Church in Chicago burned a rainbow flag as an “exorcism” because he viewed sex abuse in the institution as “definitely a gay thing.”
The flag featured a cross on top of a rainbow, and it used to fly at the Chicago church years ago, according to the Chicago Tribune. Two signs on the rectory steps of the church read, “Anti-Predator, not Anti-Gay.”
Despite being warned against it, priest Paul Kalchik cut the flag into seven pieces and then burned it “in the same fire pit that we used for the Easter vigil mass,” NBC News wrote.
“In a quiet way we took matters into our own hands,” he told NBC News, “and said a prayer of exorcism over this thing.”