CHURCHES in Suffolk were burgledalmost 250 times in the past four years, newly published information suggests. Crimes ranged from taking the lead off roofs to stealing silverware, and baptism, marriage, and funeral registers.
For what is believed to be the first time, figures on attacks on ecclesiastical buildings have been collated by a police force, but only after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Sudbury Mercury newspaper. The statistics from the Suffolk Constabulary record 238 thefts from January 2015 to December 2018.
In 2015, when lead-thefts were common, the force solved 53 out of 79 cases: a clear-up rate of 67 per cent. But, from 2016 to 2018, only seven thefts out of 159 were resolved: a clear-up rate of four per cent. In 137 of those cases, no suspects were even identified.
The silverware, and hundreds of entries in the baptism, marriage, and funeral registers were stolen from St Mary and St Botolph, Whitton, in Ipswich, when a safe was taken in December 2017. The Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Mary Sokanovic, told the Mercury: “Initially, my feeling was one of shock and great sadness. I felt a sadness for what was lost, of course, but also the question as to why.”
In November 2017, four tonnes of lead was stripped from the roof of St John the Divine, Elmswell, near Bury St Edmunds, causing severe damage from penetrating rain. A stainless-steel replacement cost £40,000. The Rector of Elmswell, the Revd Peter Goodridge, said: “I was disappointed and sad that people feel they have to do this for money. There’s no respect for historic buildings or places of worship.”
A spokesman for Suffolk Constabulary said: “It is concerning that places of worship are subject to crime. We fully appreciate such crimes can be very upsetting and distressing, particularly for those communities directly affected. We regularly give security guidance and crime-reduction advice to those responsible for church buildings, to help them to reduce the chances of becoming a victim.”
Eddie Tulasiewicz, of the National Churches Trust, said: “National figures on the incidence of lead-theft are hard if not impossible to find; so it’s great that the Sudbury Mercury did an FOI request. Lead theft from church roofs has become increasingly professional. In parts of the country, it is thought that gangs take the lead to sell in Continental Europe.
“Stolen lead and other metals can be made less tempting to steal through the use of SmartWater and other marking systems. Wherever possible, churches should install roof alarms.”
The church-operations director for the insurer Ecclesiastical, Michael Angell, said that improved security on general premises, greater public awareness, and better control of scrapyards had reduced opportunistic lead-thefts significantly, but the removal of entire church roofs, some involving organised gangs, had increased. Metal theft from churches increased by 21 per cent in 2018 compared with 2017.
He said: “Where a church has large amounts of external metal, such as lead or copper, we recommend the installation of a roof alarm approved by Ecclesiastical’s risk-management team. We know this acts as a deterrent to would-be thieves.
“In recent months, several potential lead thefts have been avoided where an alarm has been triggered and scared off would-be thieves, and, in some cases, arrests have been made.”
Churches targeted. Three village churches within a few miles of each other in Leicestershire had their roofs stripped of lead in the space of two days last week. Two of them — St Mary the Virgin, Thorpe Arnold, near Melton Mowbray, and St James’s, Ab Kettleby — were targeted on the same night, and St Helen’s, in Plungar, was burgled the next night.
The theft at St Mary’s meant that planned work to repair damp caused by faulty drainpipes has had to be postponed until the roof could be replaced. A churchwarden, Catherine Shenton, said: “Although the church is insured, we won’t get anywhere near the cost to replace what has been stolen.”
A spokesman for Leicestershire Police said that they were conducting house-to-house enquiries and CCTV trawls. “We would ask members of the public to contact police if they see anyone acting in a suspicious manner near churches or buildings in rural areas where lead may be present.”