A day meant to venerate a hero of Newark's Latino community ended in shock and horror when an auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark was punched in the face during Mass at Newark's Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
The Most Reverend Manuel A. Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, was offering opening prayers at a Saturday afternoon service commemorating the life of baseball great Roberto Clemente, remembered by Latinos in Newark, especially those from his native Puerto Rico, for his tragic death in a plane crash en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972.
The sanctity of the mass was shattered when a man wearing a white robe over a red suit shambled up to the altar from the crowd, reached Bishop Cruz and struck the 63-year-old in the face, knocking him backwards until he fell on the altar.
TAPintoNewark witnessed the assailant's apprehension after several Essex County's Sheriff's police officers ran onto the altar and handcuffed the man. One officer at the scene who saw Cruz after he was struck commented to another officer that several of the bishop's teeth had been loosened in the attack.
The Essex County's Sheriff's Officers at the scene soon cleared the cathedral in order to investigate the crime scene, telling TAPintoNewark that no further information was immediately available because of the ongoing criminal investigation.
However, several of the officers swarmed around a classic purple Cadillac Eldorado parked immediately in front of the cathedral. The car, which has a faux-zebra skin interior and New Jersey license plates, also has a residential parking permit for Foster Street, in Newark's South Ward, attached to the driver's rear view mirror.
"We're surprised and saddened by this, and we're very thankful that law enforcement was able to apprehend the assailant," said Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese. "Bishop Cruz is receiving excellent care."
Inside the cathedral immediately after the attack, the shock of the assault stunned the crowd. Many in the pews ducked when Cruz was first struck, not knowing what further to expect from the assailant. Others among the approximately 75 people assembled stood and screamed.
The mass was organized by Newark Councilman-at-large Luis Quintana and sponsored by the Mayor Ras Baraka and the City Council.
"We are all praying for Bishop Cruz," Quintana said. "It's hard understand what would provoke a man to attack a member of the clergy within the sanctity of a church. It just doesn't make any sense."
Quintana, visibly shaken and in tears, told the crowd that the mass honoring Clemente would be held the next day at the Sunday 12:30 pm Mass at nearby St. Lucy's Church, blocks away from the cathedral.
North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., who was attending the mass and witnessed the assault, said parishioners were terrified.
"This is truly one of the most shocking and disturbing things I have seen," Ramos said. "For a bishop to get attacked while conducting opening prayers during a mass honoring the humanitarian Roberto Clemente is horrendous."
Another woman in the crowd, clenching her hands together in prayer, called out to the assailant as he was marched away in handcuffs.
"I will pray for your dark soul, but this is evil," the woman cried out. "This can't happen here. This is a house of God."