Archbishop Cordileone: ‘We will make our voices heard’ after Serra statue vandalism charges downgraded

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Serra Statue
A statue of St. Junipero Serra in Sacramento, Calif., is seen in this 2015 file photo. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and other Catholics are reacting to the downgrading of felony charges against those who destroyed the statue in 2020. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Nancy Wiechec)

(OSV News) — San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone said he is “disturbed but not surprised” that charges against vandals who toppled a saint’s statue at a California parish have been downgraded.

In a May 25 announcement, Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli reduced charges of felonies to misdemeanors for five defendants accused of destroying a statue of St. Junipero Serra at St. Rafael Catholic Church, home to the historic Mission San Rafael, in San Rafael, California, almost three years ago.

Ines Shiam Gardilcic, Victoria Eva Montanopena, Melissa Aguilar, Mayorgi Nadeska Delgadillo and Moira Cribben Van de Walker were filmed by a local television crew Oct. 12, 2020, as they tied ropes around the statue and pulled it down after defacing it with red paint. The destruction took place during a gathering held by the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin commemorating Indigenous People’s Day. While they had not directed the defendants to destroy the statue, event organizers told media they supported the action.

Frugoli said the defendants had since “participated in restorative justice while the case was making its way through the court system.”

Along with the downgraded charges, the defendants must pay monetary restitution to the parish for the statue’s repair or replacement, stay off church property, complete volunteer work and apologize in writing.

The accused must also participate in an upcoming community forum with “a credible historian” who will facilitate “meaningful dialogue” about the saint, who as a Spanish Franciscan missionary during the 18th and 19th centuries has been labeled as both colonial and charitable to California’s Indigenous people.

But in a May 25 statement, Archbishop Cordileone described Frugoli’s decision as “unilateral” and made without input from him and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which had been “shut out of the conversation.”

“The mediator was treating the perpetrators as if they were the victims,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “To consider their participation in the ‘(restorative justice) process’ as a motivation for lessening the crime, when we were kept at arms’ length, is a direct insult to the victims of this crime, and only rubs the salt more deeply into our wounds.”

Archbishop Cordileone said he “readily (acknowledged), and (had) done so many times, that horrible atrocities have been perpetrated against the Indigenous people of California.”

Serra statue vandalism
A vandalized statue of St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco is seen June 19, 2020. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and other Catholics are reacting to the downgrading of felony charges against those who destroyed the statue. (OSV News photo/David Zandman via Reuters)

At the same time, he added, “an honest reading of the historical record would clear Junipero Serra of perpetrating such atrocities … indeed, he gave his life to defending the native people of our land.”

St. Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest from Mallorca, Spain, and his fellow Franciscans established 21 mission compounds in California, with Indigenous converts living in self-sufficient communities, as they received faith formation, farming and trade practices, and Spanish acculturation.

While American journalist Carey McWilliams, writing in 1946, likened Franciscan missions to Nazi concentration camps designed to eliminate Indigenous, demographer and physiologist Sherburne F. Cook — himself a detractor of the mission legacy — described the practice “much closer to socialism or communism, in the Marxian sense, than slavery.”

Regardless of how St. Junipero is viewed, said Archbishop Cordileone, “(the) point is (that) a felony crime has been committed: the law does not allow people to trespass onto private property and destroy it, all the more so when the private property is a house of worship and the property being destroyed has sacred value to the members of the congregation.”

He stressed that he “(does) not want the defendants to go to prison for what they did,” and had proposed initiating a restorative justice process earlier to avoid a trial.

The revised punishment “does not fit the crime,” he said.

“I still believe reconciliation is better, but if reconciliation cannot be achieved through restorative justice then the defendants must be justly punished, short of serving time,” he said.

Anti-Catholicism has a long and ugly history in this country. Now, with this decision, you have given the signal that attacks on Catholic houses of worship may continue without serious legal consequence,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “We will make our voices heard.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.