There's no honor among thieves -- even when it comes to stealing from churches.
A growing tide of burglaries at houses of worship are signs of both a reeling economy and the end of a social taboo that once protected the money collected to help the poor and the valuables displayed to honor a higher power. In the latest example, police in Longmont, Colo., have formed a task force to investigate 10 break-ins and attempted burglaries at six churches in less than two weeks. And all around the nation, the faithful are finding criminals unfazed by the prospect of burglarizing a sanctuary.
“From a historical standpoint, the sacredness of the church has changed, so to speak, in our society,” Jeffrey Hawkins, a security consultant who works with churches. told FoxNews.com.
Hawkins, founder and executive director of the now-defunct Christian Security Network, said churches are also more of a potentially lucrative target nowadays. The majority of churches today feature expensive multimedia components like digital soundboards, flat-screen televisions, projectors, computers and more, he said.
And they're easy pickings.
“Churches are soft targets,” said Hawkins, whose organization ceased operations amid funding problems. “If you’re a burglar, and you’re after a flat-screen television or things like that, are you going to break into an office with alarms and locks, or are you going to go down to the church with absolutely zero security? It’s an easy decision.”
The trend of breaking into churches comes as overall crime is actually decreasing.
There were 1,237 incidents of burglaries and thefts of churches in 2009, compared to 1,783 in 2010, an increase of nearly 50 percent, according to statistics compiled by Hawkins’ former organization. The total cost to churches as a result of theft, burglary, robbery, vandalism and arson in 2009 exceeded $6.3 million, Hawkins said.
“From a historical standpoint, the sacredness of the church has changed so to speak in our society."
- Jeffrey Hawkins, church security expert
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for January-June of 2011 – the most recent statistics available -- indicate that violent crime declined nationally by 6.4 percent, while burglary dropped 2.2 percent. Property crime and theft also declined by 3.7 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Longmont Police Sgt. Sean Harper told the Longmont Times-Call that authorities have identified a suspect in the string of burglaries. But investigators do not yet want to release an image of the man taken from surveillance video at one of the churches, he said.
Cash and gift cards were stolen on April 17 from a locked safe in Longs Peak United Methodist Church after someone either forced entry or entered through unlocked doors. Church trustee Rick Nelson told the Denver Post a "very troubled soul" broke into an office where the keys to the building were stored in a metal cabinet and used those keys to break into another locked office, where the gift cards and the safe were stored inside a locked closet. The safe was not opened.
"The puzzling thing is there are no keys missing," Nelson told the newspaper, adding that the keys were placed back in the cabinet.
Other communities across the country have also experienced strings of church break-ins, most recently in Roanoke, Va., where police have responded on Monday to burglaries at four local churches. No arrests have been announced in the incidents, according to the Roanoke Times & World News
In March, police in Bossier City, La., began investigating the burglaries of three churches, including two which sustained significant property damage. Two laptop computers were also taken two churches, the Bossier Press-Tribune reports.
Investigators in Mississippi's Marshall County also probed a rash of four church burglaries within a two-week period in early in March, including one instance where thieves tried to drill open a safe in the church sanctuary.
"These [are] just working people, putting their money into this, not expecting nothing in return," Pastor Wesley Newby of Apostolic Lighthouse Church told MyFoxMempis.com.
Money the church had saved up for 9 years -- hoping to send local youth on a trip -- was stolen in the March 11 heist. Newby is now debating the cost of installing video surveillance, but said the lord forgives -- even thieves.
"He loves them, we love them," Newby told MyFoxMemphis.com. "We reach out to people like this, this is [who] we reach out [to] and people need change in their lives and God's the only one that can change it."
Two church burglaries also occurred last month in Jamestown, N.Y., and a total of eight reported thefts have occurred at churches in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa. Most of the thefts have occurred during normal operating hours, according to the Waterloo Courier.
"It looks like someone is getting in while they're open," Waterloo Police Capt. Tim Pillack told the newspaper.
Elsewhere, in Kentucky's Hardin County, five churches were burglarized in early February. Rev. Jacob Pearman of Gloryland Harvest Church in Radcliff told The News-Enterprise that the suspect broke a glass door to gain entry and took a "pretty good load," including a television, camera equipment, guitars computers and other electronic equipment.
“Years ago, virtually no one would even consider breaking into a church," Hawkins said. "The perception in the United States has changed. It’s no longer a safe haven."