Rise in church vandalism leaves clergy bristling DATELINE: WELLS

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 25, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

WELLS, England -- Ralph of Shrewsbury is a marked man.

And how. People have carved him up; they've taken sharp

instruments to him, antique tools. You see, Ralph of Shrewsbury is a marble of a man-- a statue, actually, supine in the magnificent heaven-storming cathedral at Wells, in Somerset.

Ralph of Shrewsbury was the Bishop of Bath and Wells between 1329 and 1363. For the longest time, during the years when the cathedral that houses his pearly translucent image was left unguarded, people would come in and engrave their names on his body, on his head and extremities.

W. Bunse did it in 1789; John Sull in 1751; IFK (whoever that was) took to him in 1760, with a chisel it appears. In fact they all seem to have used chisels, the engravings are so deep. And the chiselings are carefully executed, as if those ancient vandals truly cared for the quality of their work, thought about posterity.

These archaic graffiti still raise hackles around here. A muscular young Anglican priest encountered under the soaring nave of the 12th-century cathedral responds to questions about them with the kind of heat that would suggest it had just happened and if he could only get his huge hands around the neck of one of the perpetrators -- well, you know what would happen to him, or her.

Then he grows philosophical, orotund:

"Man always seems determined to make his mark and doesn't really care where he makes it. . . .

"But we have guards today," he assures.

And guards they need, not only in Wells but all over the country. This according to Jim Scott, an agent of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, a company that insures churches such as the Wells Cathedral and their contents. In fact, EIG insures 97 percent of the Anglican churches in this country, and that's a lot of churches.

Last year 9,500 claims for theft were filed by many of these churches, for losses of goods of about $8 million.

The true losses were much higher, for reasons given below. Burglaries of churches rose by 20 percent in 1992, to a rate of about one every hour. Generally, church crime, including arson, theft and vandalism, is up by 200 percent over the past four years.

Crimes against churches are hardly new, as the experience of the venerable Ralph of Shrewsbury proves. Probably the incidence of it flows up and down, as most things do. The prevailing secular age may account for its rise today. On the facade of the cathedral a fair number of the stone saints and martyrs have lost their heads and limbs to outbursts of disrespect of even earlier times. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, in the 17th century, many, many statues fell under the hammers of Puritan vandals.

As for today's depredations, Mr. Scott lists the usual suspects of modern life: poverty, unemployment, weakening of the family. "Much of it is done by youngsters; they're bored. They're not so disciplined these days; they lack the discipline of the home that we once had."

Then there are people driven by more compulsive needs.

"Drug addicts, usually after the smaller items. The church is an easy target. Most churches in England are open all day. They get the idea the offerings box is loaded with money, when actually there are usually only a few pence in them. So they smash the whole thing."

But Mr. Scott also suspects a more sinister trend, the organized theft of major valuables: like stained-glass windows, very old baptismal fonts, altar tables.

"These things [the fonts] wind up in people's gardens," he said.

He adds, "Many of these items are underinsured [which is why the true dimensions of the churches' losses are far greater than the $8 million paid out by the insurer.] The churches can't afford to insure them for their full value. A prime example is a tapestry taken from a church in the north of England not long ago. It was insured for only 250 pounds [about $375]. It turned up in an auction house offered for 48,000 pounds [$72,000]."

Vandalism in particular has always been a problem for churches, temples and other places of worship.

"You'd be surprised at the people who go in for it," says Mr. Scott. "I was on holiday in Greece a couple of years ago, and I saw, carved on the wall of a temple, the name of Lord Byron."

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