The Catholic Church, one of Victoria’s wealthiest institutions, has found itself repeatedly targeted as part of a crime spree that some believe could be an ‘inside job’.
The Sunday Age can reveal that 23 churches and religious buildings have been robbed in the past two months, with offenders potentially reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Mass collections, as well as electronic equipment, keys, and other small items.
A 42-year-old man from Kew has been charged with burglaries that took place in Box Hill, Brunswick, Canterbury and Camberwell, and has been remanded to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on 18 May.
But many others churches have also been hit - including some from other religious denominations - in the suburbs of Reservoir, Clifton Hill, Malvern, Ashburton, Caulfield, Melton, Oakleigh, Camberwell, Balwyn, Mentone, Coburg, Doncaster, Glen Iris and Ivanhoe West.
The crime spree has alarmed the Catholic Melbourne Archdiocese, with one email sent out to parish priests this week warning them that ‘all collection monies should be banked immediately’.
Priests have also been advised to conceal safes from view, install motion sensors and CCTV, and limit community access to a common area within the presbytery or parish office.
When asked about the matter this week, a spokesman for Archbishop Denis Hart declined to comment, referring The Sunday Age's inquiries to Victoria Police.
Police later issued a statement confirming that detectives from the Eastern Region Crime Squad were appealing for witnesses following a series of burglaries in March and April.
But they refused to say how much money had been stolen or whether it was an ‘inside job’, which is what some well-placed sources suspect because, in certain cases, the offender or offenders appeared to know where safes and keys were kept.
Another church source had a different view, saying that priests and lay workers were ‘fairly slack’ about putting collections and other money in safe places.
Eastern Region Crime Acting Inspector Alan Rumble said the buildings targeted were affiliated with various religious denominations. Therefore, ‘while it is possible these offences may be linked, there is nothing to suggest they are religiously motivated as different religious backgrounds of the community have been affected,’ he said.
‘We believe several other people are involved and are keen to speak to anyone with information on these incidents to come forward.’
The high number of church burglaries over such a short period comes as crime remains a sensitive issue in Victoria. But after numerous increases in offending, the latest statistics show the crime rate decreased by 10 per cent last year, with fewer cases of violent crime, drug dealing, arson, thefts and burglaries.
Anyone with any information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers via 1800 333 000 or crimestoppersvic.com.au