Norfolk churches targetted by vandals and burglars

More than four crimes a week are being committed at Norfolk's sacred and historical churches, according to new figures obtained by the EDP.

The attacks range from burglars breaking in to take donation tins and candlesticks, to thieves stealing lead from medieval roofs and arson attacks.

Churches face bills for thousands of pounds to repair damage and replace items which are often deemed priceless parts of the county's heritage.

But there is also an emotional cost to each crime as parishioners and worshippers, who see the sacred buildings as places of solace and security, are left feeling violated.

Last night the Archdeacon of Norwich and the Norfolk Churches Trust united to denounce the criminals they said were abusing buildings which should be revered.

The Venerable Jan McFarlane said: 'Most things in a church, in terms of candlesticks and crosses, have usually been given in memory of somebody. The emotional upset when something like that is taken is huge. It's a sheer feeling of violation.

'What it indicates is a general lack of respect for church buildings which seems to be increasing. Once upon a time they were seen as sacred places – that's clearly not the case any more.'

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Police figures, obtained by the EDP under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed 193 crimes, or an average of 4.5 a week, were reported at Norfolk churches between January 1 and October 31.Since January 2008, 631 offences – or 4.3 per week – have been reported across the county.

And it is a similar picture in Suffolk where police have been told about an average of 4.6 crimes each week since January 2008.

In Cambridgeshire, 483 offences were reported over the three-year period.

The figures come as yet more East Anglian churches have become victims in the last few weeks.

On Saturday, the EDP reported how St Mary's Church at Ellingham, near Beccles, had thousands of pounds of lead stolen from its roof for the third time in five months.

Builders discovered the latest attack when they arrived to start work fixing damage caused the last time it was targeted.

Last weekend, on Remembrance Sunday, a Royal British Legion collection box was stolen from the entrance of Fakenham parish church as a service was carried out in memory of the county's servicemen.

And the Church of St Nicholas in Wrentham, between Lowestoft and Southwold, was also targeted for lead earlier this month.

DCI Neil Firm, of Norfolk Police CID, said the location of the buildings, which were often in rural, isolated areas, made them particularly vulnerable.

'Criminal activity can take place at many of them without anyone being aware of it,' he said. 'It makes it difficult for people to report things.

'Not so much now but in the past, churches have been known to be a source of fairly valuable items.'

For many, those items are priceless, steeped with personal or historical significance.

Malcolm Fisher is company secretary of the Norfolk Churches Trust which helps protect the county's important religious monuments.

He said he was taken aback by the number of crimes reported and added: 'There are items which are absolutely unique in our churches - there is nothing else like it. They are irreplaceable and they are being violated by this criminal section of society - what right have they got?

'The majority of churches in Norfolk are medieval as well, so it affects the heritage if there are burglaries.'

Regardless of what crime is carried out - whether it is stealing lead, smashing windows or anti social behaviour in church yards - the feeling of devastation for worshippers and visitors to the churches is great.

Mr Fisher said: 'The people who look after them, I can tell you, it really does hit their moral. It's a violation.

'These buildings are revered, for whatever reason, Would you go into a cemetery and do something similar?'

Archdeacon McFarlane added: 'It's the same as if your house is burgled - it's a place that's special to you and, if someone damages it in anyway, it feels personal. It causes a great deal of sadness and upset when someone damages a church.'

But there was disagreement over the best way to put off would-be criminals, which DCI Firm said were often part of organised gangs.

The Norfolk Church Trust encourages wardens to keep the buildings open to the public so they can be enjoyed by all and the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group now also recommends keeping doors unlocked during the day.

Archdeacon McFarlane said: 'They say when they are open there is less chance of them being targets because anybody could walk in at any time - that's less attractive to a burglar.'

But police believe, while that may work in urban areas, churches in isolated locations would still be at risk. 'The chances of someone coming in, I would suggest, is somewhat limited,' said DCI Firm. 'Unfortunately that's a decision for the church.'

Many churches have begun removing valuable items, like processional crosses, outside of service times and all are recommended to use marking systems like Smart Water on their lead.

The FOI figures included all crimes where the location of the offence was reported as at a church. They include one or two crimes, like affray, which are likely to have been committed close to the church rather than at the building itself.

However the vast majority - 95pc of those reported in Norfolk since 2008 - involved thefts, burglaries, criminal damage and arson.