All around the Mahoning Valley, churches are being targeted by criminals looking for money, electronics or other valuables.
''It's difficult for many churches, because on one hand, they're trying to be Christian about this and turn the other cheek,'' said Warren police Chief John Mandopoulos. "But on the other hand, you have to be accountable for the money. People will report the break-in, because their parishioners expect it. But they're often very reluctant to pursue the charges."
Thieves have targeted Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran and non-denominational churches in Warren, Austintown and Youngstown in recent months. More than a dozen churches have been victimized. One church, Highway Tabernacle in Austintown, was broken into twice.
Sometimes witnesses report seeing a suspect to police, and other times, the breakins occur overnight.
''Churches are seen as soft targets because many times, they don't have alarm systems,'' said Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Cincinnati-based consultants the Christian Security Network. After spending 30 years in law enforcement, Hawkins said he was asked to provide security for an international Christian ministry.
''God puts you where he wants you,'' he said. After that, he began lecturing on security for faith-based organizations and now offers seminars and training for faith-based organizations. He graduated from the Chicago Police Academy, and has worked with the FBI and counter-terrorism agencies in Israel, according to his company's web site.
Recent crimes against churches:
- Jan. 2, Crossroads Church, 554 S. Meridian Road, Austintown Someone broke into the office filing cabinets and stole a bank bag loaded with coins and checks that had been given in the offertory. The checks were taken out of the bank bag and tossed into a trash bin.
- Dec. 28, Eastside Church of God, 417 Vine Ave. S.E., Warren A door on the south side was pried open and an interior office door in the basement also was pried open. A safe in the office was open, but there were no pry marks. It is unknown if any money was taken from the safe, but several rooms and the office were ransacked.
- Dec. 27, Friendship Baptist Church, 1954 Brier St. S.E., Warren Someone broke the glass on the entrance door on the church's south side and damaged a window on the west side of the building.
- Dec. 24 , Rectory of St. Christine Church, 3165 S. Schenley Ave., Youngstown The Rev. Peter Haladej told police he was upstairs when he heard a loud bang, and then a short time later, a man holding a bunch of envelopes appeared in his doorway. The man got into the rectory through an unlocked patio door, kicked open a garage door and threw a brick through a window to unlock another door to get inside the rectory, police said. The report states someone went through the kitchen and offices before running into Haladej. The envelopes contained Christmas cards. It is not known if anything was taken, the report states.
- Dec. 21, Highway Tabernacle Church, 3000 S. Raccoon Road, Austintown Someone broke into the church and went to the office. Two bank bags with money were stolen from the office desk. Money also was stolen from the office safe. The thieves also broke into the library, and damaged bookshelves and desk locks. A metal butterknife, which was apparently was used to break in to the church, was found inside the building.
- Dec. 16, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish Center offices and Rectory, 4500 Norquest, Austintown The offices were ransacked, and a blanket was stolen from the rectory.
- Dec. 7, New Creation Baptist Church, 403 Atlantic N.W., Warren Church trustees examined the contents of their building after someone broke in. Officials were taking inventory, trying to determine what was taken. The crime was discovered just before morning services.
- Nov. 25, Rectory of St. Joseph's Church, 1346 Vernon Ave. N.W., Warren The thief went into the pastor's bedroom and stole a gold ring, a gold necklace, a coin collection and approximately $4,000 in cash kept in a box. A watch and several other items were taken from the priest's bedroom table.
- Nov. 4, Highway Tabernacle Church, 3000 S. Raccoon Road, Austintown Police found the glass of a door at the church smashed out. After police surrounded the church and determined there was no one inside, the business manager for the church came out to assess the damage. The thief pried open and rummaged through filing and storage cabinets. The thief located and broke into the church safe. They stole items from the safe that were valuable only to the church. Also stolen was a 37-inch Panasonic LCD monitor.
- Nov. 4, Lynn Kirk Church of of Christ at 4199 Kirk Road, Austintown Someone broke in through a window and ransacked the building. The thieves stole checks drawn on Lynn Kirk Christian School, petty cash, a computer system, a digital camera, a VCR, a DVD player and 26-inch LCD TV, two-way radios, a microphone and a wireless network adapter. Damaged were a CD player and fax machine, a filing cabinet and several baby gates
- Sept. 13, Emanuel Lutheran Church, 140 Cherry Ave. N.W., Warren A trustee of the church reported the break-in. He said the burglar broke in after climbing on the church roof. The burglar ransacked several closets and desk drawers, and ate some cake that was on a platter inside the refrigerator. Cake also was thrown on the ceiling near the church's west entrance, the report states.
''Many churches may look at a crime like a breakin and say, if someone is taking something from me, that must mean they really need it,'' Hawkins said. ''That is not a good way to look at it.'' He likened it to giving a person addicted to drugs a cash gift, no questions asked.
''People in social ministries will tell you that is the worst thing to do," Hawkins said. "You can help people, but you don't have to give them money."
Mandopoulos said many of the crimes being committed against local churches could be attributed to drug addiction. People know that many churches have food pantries or clothing donation closets. These things can be sold for cash, the police chief said. Money given in tithes or collection plates also have been stolen, according to the police reports. Some churches have been targeted around major holidays, when collections could be larger.
''In these economic times, church congregations know exactly what they're tithing for,'' Hawkins said.
Nancy Yuhasz, chancellor for the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, said the money given in the offertory at local churches and parishes supports many different programs.
''There are special collections for the food kitchen or special assistance funds,'' she said. ''The money in the offertory goes to support the parish, to maintain the buildings and other facilities," she said.
Hawkins said his company tries to help churches and congregations find solutions to security problems. Not all of these choices cost money, he said.
"There's no cookie cutter approach," he said. "Not every church needs electronics like alarms and cameras. We don't sell these products, although we can find vendors for churches if they need it. There are many things faith based organizations can do without spending money,'' he said.
Yuhasz said security arrangements for diocese churches are made by individual parishes. Some have opted for security systems; others have used guards at times, she said.