CHURCHES have come under attack by gangs of lead thieves cashing in on the high price of metal.
Following the latest strike at St Thomas of Canterbury Church, parish vicar, the Rev Colin Hewitt, told the Gazette he "worried for the souls" of the culprits.
An estimated £10,000 of damage was caused to the church in St Thomas Road, just off Brentwood High Street, last week.
After scaling the front of the building, the thieves ripped off sheets from the roof and threw them to their getaway truck.
Police this week confirmed that scrap metal gangs have been targeting other parts of Brentwood, particularly religious buildings, including St Paul's Church at Bentley Common and Elim Pentecostal Church in Ingatestone High Street.
Mr Hewitt said they only discovered the lead was missing after water started gushing from the ceiling inside the church during a downpour last Tuesday morning.
Mr Hewitt has been told the thieves would have spent at least two hours – possibly in daylight – removing the lead, which was covered in a traceable 'DNA smart water' solution.
He said: "I feel sad for them and what they have done without thinking it through.
"They have stolen from God's house and will have a lot to deal with him, which is beyond me.
"In time it will probably hit home what they have done. These people will probably ask for a christening or wedding here and expect it to be dry."
He added: "I worry for their souls, but for now they have stolen from the people in and around Brentwood."
Mr Hewitt said to make matters worse the church's insurers have already indicated that they will not pay to replace the stolen metal, such is the current rate of this crime.
Instead, it will be down to the congregation to find the money.
The cost of replacement is on top of so many other costs including the current repairs to the church organ. Also, like all parishes, St Thomas's must pay the Chelmsford Diocese its parish share of more than £100,000, which contributes to the cost of providing clergy stipends across the diocese.
In the meantime a local firm called Caters has fitted temporary felt to stop rain water leaking into the church and a team of helpers cleaned up the sodden church on the Tuesday morning.
Mr Hewitt said: "They have vandalised the church where we will be tasked with mending the damage at our own expense, so that we can continue to worship God here, as well as holding civic services for the local community, with no financial help from the council, government or diocese.
"Schools, youth organisations, charity concerts, hospices, even the town's Remembrance Sunday service, expect to enter a waterproof building.
"Instead of boosting the funds of a variety of charities at Christmas and throughout the year, we are now forced to pay for the damage the vandals caused."
Mr Hewitt said they would now look to replace the lead with low-value plastic, providing they gain permission from English Heritage, while fitting extra security.
He said he had been told by police that other areas had been targeted by metal thieves, who have even stripped the metal from drains, cabling and other public services.
The vicar at St Paul's in Bentley Common, the Rev Mark James, said they were targeted just weeks ago.
Thieves stole about £3,500 worth of lead from the roof, but the church was only likely to get around half of this amount from the insurers.
He said: "It was probably during the evening and they were disturbed because they left some lead behind.
"We hope to replace it with something cheaper.
"We have to because we cannot afford to replace it with lead if we are only getting 50 per cent of it back."
He added: "They do seem to be hitting the Brentwood area at the moment."
Brentwood's district commander, Chief Inspector Simon Werrett confirmed there had been periodical spates of metal thefts in the borough, but it could be hard to trace the thieves after the crime had been committed and the metal taken away.
Anyone with information about the thefts, including the one at St Thomas's, should contact Brentwood Police on 0300 333 4444 or by dialling 101.