A CHURCH leader has condemned the metal thieves who caused a gas leak by stealing copper pipes to sell for scrap.

The Archdeacon of Auckland, the Venerable Nick Barker, said that the theft from Holy Trinity Church, in Darlington, is typical of the sort of crime which is threatening the church's ability to look after buildings throughout the country.

The church, in Milbank Road, offWoodland Road, was broken into last week, and sections of copper gas pipe were hacked off and stolen for sale as scrap.

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In doing so, the thieves caused gas to leak out into the church.

When the church wardens arrived on Wednesday morning, they were confronted by the overpowering smell of gas.

The building had to be fully ventilated before a funeral later that day and the heating system is still not fully operational.

Mr Barker said it was indicative of the problem facing churches throughout the UK, where the theft of metals is rife.

He said: "The Church of England finds itself stewarding much of the building heritage of the country, and it has been really pushed to its limits.

"There is a real threat on the capacity of the church as a whole to sustain the present level of theft that is going on."

Mr Barker said that the theft had caused major disruption to the community of Holy Trinity Church.

"People see it as a victimless crime, " he said.

"But it's the wardens who have to spend two days mopping up the mess, and the little old ladies who keep the church running who suffer."

Most churches are insured through Ecclesiastical Insurance, but Mr Barker said they were becoming increasingly reluctant to pay out for theft of metals, so extensive is the incidence of thefts from church buildings.

He said a meeting is being held this week with police and insurers to discuss the issue.

"The church community continues to add to the collection every week, and it is having to come out of that, " he said.

"It just saps people's energy and I think part of that is because of the insurance issue."

Anyone with information about the theft from Holy Trinity Church, is asked to call Darlington police on 034560-60-365.