After statues were damaged at Catholic churches in Cherry Hill earlier this week, vandals have struck again, with four Catholic churches in the township and one in Mount Laurel having been hit in all, authorities said Friday.

The spree - costing thousands of dollars in damage - prompted police to upgrade the offense from criminal mischief to a "bias crime."

It also has caused investigators to redouble their efforts to track down those responsible.

"We're going to make the maximum effort on this," Detective Sgt. Joseph Vitarelli, a Cherry Hill police spokesman, said Friday.

St. Thomas More Church in the 1400 block of Springdale Road in Cherry Hill was one of the first churches struck, between 5 p.m. Monday and 7 p.m. Tuesday, police said.

An eight-foot Italian marble statue of Mary was knocked over and broken in three pieces.

Vandals returned to St. Thomas More late Thursday or early Friday to damage more statues, authorities said.

A statue of Mary and the infant Jesus at Queen of Heaven Church, 700 W. Marlton Pike, Cherry Hill, also was shattered late Monday or early Tuesday, police said. The figures stood about five feet tall, police said. The heads were knocked off.

During the same period, vandals hit Holy Eucharist Catholic Church in the 300 block of Kresson Road in Cherry Hill, where they damaged a statue of Mary, authorities said.

They struck again between Thursday and Friday, knocking over a statue of Mary, investigators said.

In another incident over the last two days, a statue of Mary was damaged at the Catholic Church of St. Mary in the 2000 block of Springdale Road in Cherry Hill. The statue's hands were knocked off, police said.

The vandalism spread during the same period to Mount Laurel in Burlington County, where 33 statues in a grotto were damaged at St. John Neumann Church in the 500 block of Walton Avenue. The hands of some of the figures were knocked off, police said.

The damage appeared to indicate that the statues had been struck by an object, possibly a baseball bat, Vitarelli said.

"This is a bias incident," Vitarelli said. "It's crazy."

"It's one thing to push over a statue onto the grass. When that happens, you pick it up and put it back," he said. "But this is blatant."

Anyone with information is asked to call the police Investigative Unit at 856-488-7833.

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or