2011-09-29 / Local & State

Crimes Target Churches In Central Pa.


CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (AP) – Collection plate money, copper downspouts and even church van parts – for some unscrupulous thieves, Franklin County’s houses of worship have apparently become a source of easy cash.

At least eight area churches have fallen victim to some type of crime in the past month. All but one of those incidents, the reported vandalism of a van, involved thefts. Many agree that the trend is likely a product of an ailing economy.

“Perhaps people are becoming more desperate for funds to take care of their needs and perhaps they are willing to take greater risks and take things, even from places where they wouldn’t usually,’’ said Pastor Rocky Spear of Mogul Church near Shippensburg.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, someone reportedly stole $661 from his church’s locked office. Pennsylvania State Police, Chambersburg, said the theft happened between 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. There was no evidence of forced entry, so it appears the thief used a key.

The church has a congregation of about 200 people, and in his five years of ministry there, Spear can’t recall a similar incident. He said the church was burglarized a few years before his tenure began.

Spear said the stolen money had been given to the church by its parishioners during that morning’s service. It was intended to pay for operating expenses.

“That covers everything from utilities to ministry, to salaries,’’ Spear said. “It’s sad, but we’re not going to get stuck over that. God has always provided for the church, and I don’t think $600 is going to hamper what God can do.’’

Most of the recent thefts have not targeted money or other valuables from inside. The majority of cases have involved stolen copper downspouts from the buildings themselves, an increasingly common crime that has not been limited to churches.

Copper scrap metal was reportedly selling for about $6,000 a ton at the beginning of September. Otterbein Church in Waynesboro, Mount Pleasant United Brethren Church in Greene Township, Trinity, United Church of Christ in Mercersburg and Memorial Lutheran Church in Shippensburg have all had downspouts stolen in the past month.

“When you get into taking metal off of buildings, I think that’s economic despair talking,’’ said John Spangler of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

He said several historic buildings on the seminary’s campus have also been stripped of their outdoor copper. When it comes to this kind of theft, he believes churches are likely targeted out of a perception of convenience.

Amir Marvasti, an associate professor of sociology at Penn State Altoona, said thefts are usually motivated by need. He said the choice to victimize a church may be largely due to convenience, and the social stigma of such a crime is likely lost on the criminal.

“Churches make easy targets. They’re not usually under surveillance, not well guarded. People expect strangers to routinely go into a church to pray. It may be the path of least resistance,’’ he said. “There’s an old saying, ‘there’s no honor among thieves.’’’

Pastor Ray Kipe of Five Forks Brethren in Christ Church said his church’s van was apparently seen as an easy mark when it was parked outside the Quincy Township house of worship. Someone stole the van’s catalytic converter between 11 p.m. Sept. 10 and 2:30 p.m. Sept. 13.

“We had been leaving it parked out in the open on a regular basis. Someone probably noticed that,’’ he said. “I don’t think the church was necessarily targeted, I think it could have happened anywhere at all.’’

Catalytic converters contain precious metals including platinum and rhodium, which can command a high price from scrap metal dealers. Kipe said another pastor discovered the part was missing when he started up the van and “it sounded like a race car.’’

The total cost to repair the van was $800. The church uses the van to take parishioners on various outings, including visits to shut-ins. It has also made a number of trips to bring donated supplies to people in need, including victims of the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo.

“Some people might ask, ‘how could you steal from a church?’ And yet, for many people who no longer respect that sort of thought about churches, I don’t know that they feel any worse about it,’’ Kipe said. “I think that sort of respect or sense of fear is gone. It’s where our culture is today, as opposed to where it was 50 years ago.’’

Marvasti said it’s difficult to form any conclusions about who might be responsible for the thefts.

“It doesn’t sound to me like you’re looking at professional criminals here,’’ he said. “They don’t usually target churches, and if they do it would be probably be for something more valuable than copper and catalytic converters.’’

Kipe said the van is now being stored in a garage, and the church is taking other steps to ensure security. Likewise, Spear said his church is being more cautious since the collection plate money was stolen.

“It’s just a sad situation that occurred and we’re continuing to move forward and do our ministry,’’ Spear said. “Still, it causes you to change a few procedures. If you don’t learn from past mistakes, you probably have to learn the lesson again.’’

Neither pastor said he was angry about the crimes. Both pointed out that their churches strive to provide assistance for people in need, and would have preferred to try and help the thieves if they had been asked first.

“I think the scripture calls us first of all to be forgiving,’’ Spear said. “We would not excuse what they did, but perhaps we could be kind and loving towards them and maybe make a difference in their lives.’’

Both agreed that those responsible for the thefts should be held responsible through the criminal justice system.

“I have a sense of compassion for people who do that, not because they’re not guilty, but because I feel sorry for the person who has to do that sort of thing to survive,’’ Kipe said. “I know that’s not a way to live peacefully.’’

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