Protecting Your Church from Vandals

David Parkinson

 

Broken church windows
(Photo: Ecclesiastical)

In 2007 one out of every three Anglican churches suffered a vandal attack at some point during the year. Theft, arson and malicious damage have always been a problem for churches. As prominent community buildings they can become a focus for anti-social behaviour. Opportunist thefts, mindless vandalism and petty damage are sadly all too common. But churches have faced this problem for centuries, so most have seen it all before, know how to protect themselves, and are one step ahead of the thieves and vandals.

Cases of malicious damage have actually fallen in the past few years. In 2002 Ecclesiastical paid over 2,500 vandalism claims, while in 2007 this dropped to 2,000 incidents. Nevertheless, claims last year cost £1.8 million in total, a significant amount for petty crime. The average cost of these claims was around £900. These statistics don’t, of course, take into account the smaller attacks which churches don’t report to their insurer because the damage is minor. So it’s likely that many more thousands of churches suffer malicious damage every year.

There are several reasons why churches can be more vulnerable than other buildings. Many are located in city centres which are deserted at night and are crime hotspots, while others are found in remote rural locations where they are isolated and have no one to watch over them. Although many churches are situated in well-populated areas they are also still vulnerable because neighbours often pay little attention to what goes on at the church.

The fact that they leave their doors open may also be tempting for criminals. No other property owner in their right mind would leave a building open all hours of the day, but churches need to be open and accessible for the community, and this can make the vandal’s work easier.

On a more positive note, there can be benefits to keeping the doors open: a well-used church with regular visits, or stewarding by church members, offers fewer opportunities for vandalism or theft. Increased community use of the building can also deter thieves as a result of the increased occupancy and may help to develop a sense of ownership of the building among community members, which can discourage local criminal activity.

The most common malicious damage churches suffer from is caused by objects being thrown through windows. Typically, young people who hang around the church, either out of boredom or malicious intent, try to smash the windows. An ordinary window glazed with standard glass might cost as little as £50-£60 to replace. A stained glass window, on the other hand, could cost thousands to repair if it is a particularly fine example. Highly-skilled restorers and craftspeople need to be employed in such cases, it’s not simply a question of calling out the local glazier.

  Graffiti on stone memorial
  Graffiti damage to memorial in Ilkeston Churchyard, Derbyshire (Photo: Hirst Conservation)

Graffiti is also a common problem for churches. Many attacks go unreported both to insurers and police because pursuing them would achieve little. Church members often end up undoing the damage themselves when it isn’t significant enough to warrant an insurance claim. However, these attacks are a drain on every church’s time and a significant blow to morale and confidence. Churches need to be as determined as other property owners to keep criminals out and protect their property. While many churches suffer one-off incidents, others face repeat attacks which are expensive and demoralising. Congregations work hard to maintain and protect their buildings and these repeat attacks can weaken the resolve of otherwise committed individuals.

Some significant attacks result from forms of petty crime that get out of control. One such crime involved a vandal tampering with an oil tank which was separate from the church building. The oil was set alight in a small area. The burning fuel ran down a slope towards the church and set fire to a tree. The tree then set fire to the church, which was almost completely destroyed. The total repair bill will be nearly £2 million. This wasn’t, presumably, what the vandal intended, but circumstances quickly got out of their control.

At another church, thieves who entered the building were frustrated to find nothing to steal. To vent their frustration they sprayed a dry powder extinguisher all around the building. One might not expect this to cause much damage, particularly as it wasn’t a water-based extinguisher. However, the powder used in dry powder extinguishers can be corrosive. If the powder is left to settle on a surface, even stone, it will eventually eat away at it. As a result, the entire church had to be painstakingly cleaned to protect it. The organ had also been sprayed, so it needed to be cleaned, too. The total cost of making good the damage ran to several hundred thousand pounds.

Claims caused by thoughtless acts can and do happen but, sadly, intentional vandalism is more common. Late last year a 23-year-old man was arrested in connection with vandalism to a Norfolk church which will cost thousands of pounds to repair. Up to 40 headstones were pushed over, stained glass windows smashed and pews wrecked in the attack.

Fire damaged church interior  
Fire damage resulting from vandalism at St Peter’s Church, Cranbourne  
Partially cleaned painting blackened by fire damage  
Fire damaged painting at St Peter’s, Cranbourne, which was subsequently cleaned and restored  
Detail of reredos showing paint blistering  
Painted reredos at St Peter’s, Cranbourne: paint blistered by the intense heat of a fire cannot always be fully restored (Photos: Hirst Conservation)  

Churches are, of course, not just religious buildings used once a week for an hour on a Sunday. Worship now takes place at different times of the week. Many community groups also rely on churches for meetings and for a wide range of activities. A church also gives a community a real sense of place. Without it, a community loses more than a physical structure. While people may not attend the church regularly, they still care about its place in their community.

Churches everywhere are not only symbolic lynchpins of their communities, they are also often the oldest building standing and constitute fine examples of our heritage and they are often costly and time-consuming to repair properly. Even minor damage can cost thousands of pounds to repair if specialist craftspeople and materials are required to do the job.

For churches, the cost of vandalism in terms of its impact on the community and the time and money it takes to repair is often very great. However, churches don’t need to be vulnerable and many are working hard to protect themselves. To make themselves as safe as possible, churches should begin by making friends with their neighbours. Churches are rarely completely isolated: even in rural areas there is usually a house or two a short distance from the church. Churches should encourage neighbouring residents to keep an eye and ear out for the church. They don’t need to patrol it, just being vigilant is of benefit. Walking their dog through the churchyard, for example, could be just enough to prevent criminals from attempting an attack. If different people pass the church at different times of the day, the opportunity for criminals to strike will be much reduced. While keeping the doors open has many advantages, it makes sense for a volunteer to mind the church where possible if it is to be left open. Of course, precautions should be taken to ensure that volunteers never put their personal safety at risk.

The next simple and practical thing churches can do to protect themselves is to make themselves as unattractive to criminals as possible. This means keeping valuables in a safe or in a secure area like a locked vestry, substituting valuable items such as brass or silver candlesticks with wooden alternatives that are less attractive to thieves, or giving particularly valuable items to a bank or museum to safeguard. Remove all unwanted items that could be used to start a fire, such as newspaper, matches and candles, and ensure any petrol used for lawn mowers is not stored inside the church.

Next, take a long look at the security of the church and its surrounding buildings. Are there secluded areas screened by overgrown trees where people could congregate? Are low roofs easily accessible via bins pushed against the church? Are areas of the church poorly lit? If so, there are simple things you can do to make your church safer: cutting back overgrown vegetation or installing an inexpensive security light, for example. Criminals don’t generally like to be observed and these measures will make it harder for vandals to get away with attacking your church.

Closed circuit television (CCTV) is a more expensive security precaution, but one which may help you to protect your church. Before considering installing CCTV, you need to be clear about what you want it to achieve. If you are experiencing a persistent problem with youths damaging windows, for example, a CCTV camera set up in full view may deter the youths from damaging the windows for fear of getting caught. However, a covert camera in closer proximity to the windows may help to identify the youths and assist the police in catching them. The type of system required, including the type of cameras, provision of artificial lighting, monitors, recording methods and camera locations all need to be carefully considered and expert advice from a CCTV installer should be sought.

  Alarm control panel mounted on church wall
  Alarm systems should be tailored to protect the most vulnerable areas of the building. (Photo: Ecclesiastical)

There is also a long list of factors to take into account when it comes to intruder alarms. Again, tailoring the alarm to your specific needs is key. Establish where your building is most vulnerable and work to protect it. Ironically, security lighting, CCTV and intruder alarms can themselves become the target of vandalism and you’ll need to weigh up the chances of such attacks and consider how to go about protecting such equipment.

As stained glass is particularly vulnerable to attack it is worth investing in glazing protection such as stainless steel grilles. Bear in mind, however, that a faculty is required to do this work, so you should involve the diocese from the planning stage. When weighing up the various options for protecting stained glass, you should also consider any negative impact a protective system may have on the fabric and character of your church.

The list of things churches can do to protect themselves from thieves and vandals is considerable, so churches should never feel they are powerless to combat their problems. However, churches should not be complacent either. While petty acts of vandalism don’t compare to a major fire, the cost of successive attacks can quickly mount up. A small fire can also quickly turn into a raging inferno and a broken window can let the full force of a winter storm into the church. A small amount of damage can quickly spiral into a serious issue. So the worst thing you can do is to ignore a string of acts of vandalism. As soon as a problem rears its ugly head, do what you can to tackle it. You may need to persevere to identify the most effective solutions but, if you do, you can be confident that your church will continue to be a much-loved and well-used part of your community.

 

 

Historic Churches, 2008

Author

DAVID PARKINSON is a senior surveyor at specialist insurer Ecclesiastical. Ecclesiastical was established in 1887 to protect the Anglican church and now protects over 95 per cent of Anglican churches in England and Wales.

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