RETAILERS have led a national backlash against a York priest who advised society’s most vulnerable and needy people to shoplift.

Supermarket giant Asda claimed shoplifting was not robbing from the rich, but robbing from staff who had been working hard to secure their annual bonuses.

“Maybe Father Tim Jones could repeat his sermon at our York store and see what reaction he gets?” asked an Asda spokesman, adding: “He’s one psalm short of a sermon!”

The British Retail Consortium was equally critical, saying: “You’d expect a vicar to appreciate the difference between right and wrong. There are no excuses for stealing. Shoplifting is wrong and it’s not more or less wrong depending on who the victim is.”

Father Jones, parish priest of St Lawrence and St Hilda, today stood by his comments. The Archdeacon of York, the Venerable Richard Seed, said the Church of England did not advise anyone to shoplift, or break the law in any way. He said: “Father Tim Jones is raising important issues about the difficulties people face when benefits are not forthcoming, but shoplifting is not the way to overcome these difficulties. There are many organisations and charities working with people in need, and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau is a good first place to call.”

However, a diocesan spokeswoman said no disciplinary action would be taken against the priest.

York MP Hugh Bayley also criticised the priest, saying: “He’s a nice guy, who has championed the cause of the poor for many years, but I think he’s got it wrong.

“The reason he is wrong is that there are many people who are not in desperate circumstances who would wrongly take this as an invitation to steal.”

But Father Jones remained unrepentant and stood by his comments, which were made in a sermon to worshippers on the last Sunday before Christmas.

He said he did not believe shoplifting was right, but was the “least worst option” for some people in desperate situations, such as prisoners emerging from jail who had no benefits, for whom it was better to shoplift than to mug, burgle or turn to prostitution.

He asked people who had spent large sums of money on “rubbish” for Christmas presents not to judge the actions of society’s neediest people.

Within hours of Father Jones’s comments being exclusively reported in yesterday’s The Press, the story had appeared on the websites of various national news organisations including The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Times, as well as The Press’, and it was greeted with a storm of comments from readers, many outraged.

Pete Brown, North Yorkshire’s chief probation officer, said a prisoner’s release date was known in advance, and the service liked to have a prisoner released with a plan and their accommodation and benefits sorted. He said it would be “very rare” for anyone to fall through the net. But he pointed out the probation service was responsible only for supervising people who had been released from prison after being convicted and sentenced to 12 months or more.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We can help people find out what benefits they are entitled to and also help them make a claim.”

Beryl Holliday, of the Salvation Army, said she had heard people say “can you give them a food parcel because their benefits have not come through”.

“It does happen. But I most certainly cannot condone shoplifting. Come to the Salvation Army, and we can give people something to eat if they need it.”