CHURCH leaders are reeling after lead thieves targeted the 20th church this year hiking repair costs to over £2.5m as they battle to stop a rising epidemic of damage.

Residents in Brafferton and Helperby, near Easingwold, were left devastated after becoming the latest victims when 60 per cent of the lead roof of their newly restored parish church, St Peters, was stolen. Massive damage was caused and they've been left with a bill of up to £100,000 they have no way of paying.

Rain was left pouring in when thieves struck overnight on Thursday November 21 causing further damage to the ancient building. The York Diocese say it is a growing problem and they're calling for vigilance.

St Peter’s had just finished a £200,000 renovation. Parishioners are now concerned the thieves will return for the rest of the lead and have been told by insurers they could only be covered for £7,500 of the repair costs which will be between £80,000 to £100,000.

Curate Rev Carmel Gittens said: "We are all absolutely devastated, especially after all the work that had been done and the church was looking amazingly beautiful. We thought that would be it for the next 100 years and now we have to start all over again.

"It seems to have been very professionally done, we suspect they have been casing the church during the time of the restoration and then as soon as the dark nights came they struck.

"We have had emergency sheeting put over the roof while we try and work out how on earth we can get the money together to replace it. There was quite a lot of water damage because rain was coming in overnight.

"We understand from the Diocese that there have been more than 20 incidents of lead being taken from churches around the region. It really is heartbreaking. It is a major theft and such a blow, it is appalling that people are doing this to our wonderful churches. We really are in a financial pickle if anyone can help us or has any ideas we would really appreciate it."

Other churches hit in the past year have largely been in East Yorkshire. The York Diocese stretches from the Tees to the Humber. York Diocesan Buildings Adviser Keith Halliday said:"This is a national problem for the whole Church of England, and we’re working closely with the police and churches to support measures to protect them from these attacks.

"Whether you’re a churchgoer or not, these buildings belong to the community and they’re a living record of the place they serve. Everyone is hurt by these thefts, and in the end the best protection is vigilance by everyone in the parish."

A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said stealing from a place of worship is particularly low, they are investigating and they're appealing for anyone with information to call them on 101, quoting reference NYP22112019-0094.