LITTER louts are causing a holy stink by using a 260-year-old churchyard as a dumping ground.
Bags of rubbish are being hurled over a wall into the cemetery at All Saints Church in Penshaw.
Now the parish vicar is asking fly-tippers to clean up their act for Christmas.
As well as being used as a rubbish dump, the church grounds are also being targeted by revellers scattering empty beer cans and wine bottles.
And careless dog owners who use it as a right of way are allowing their pets to foul gravesides.
Although the churchyard has been closed to burials for about 20 years, families are still able to scatter the ashes of loved ones at a memorial garden.
Now fed-up members of the congregation and people living nearby have formed a litter squad to tackle the mess.
Churchgoer Jane Elsdon hit out at those responsible.
She said: “When will people realise and respect that this is an area where people have buried their loved ones and visit it for some peace and reflection?
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“If it was not for the sterling efforts of a local gentleman who voluntarily clears the rubbish on a regular basis, because he has friends buried there, I dread to think what sort of a state the cemetery would be in.”
The 66-year-old said litter pickers filled a blue recycling bin with empty cans of lager and she often picks up empty bottles of wine and vodka.
“They don’t seem to have any respect,” she added. “I don’t know why they do it.
“We have just raised £20,000 to refurbish the inside of the church and are still raising money to have it painted.
“We have about 10 weddings booked next year, so we want it nice for the brides and grooms, we have some quite big baptisms and of course, we’re always here for funerals.
“Norman, the man who clears up, isn’t even one of congregation, he just says that it upsets him to see the cemetery in that state, as he has friends buried there.
“One of the parishioners goes in to clear up the garden of remembrance.
“We just want to highlight it so hopefully people will stop throwing rubbish in.”
The Reverend Steve Osman said rubbish pile has grown in recent months.
He said: “It’s been a matter of months - at least two or three.
“But the problem with dogs has been going on a lot longer.
“We do have some good-hearted community folk who come and help us.
“I would like to send the people responsible a message asking them to stop.”
Sunderland City Council can take legal action against anyone who illegally dumps waste, who could then face a maximum fine of £50,000 and up to five years imprisonment.
In the summer the city came third in a list of shame for areas in the North East blighted by fly-tippers with 6,744 reported cases in 2010/11 - up from 3,559 the previous year.
Fly-tipping can be reported by calling the Neighbourhood Helpline on 0300 1000101, which is open 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.