(RNS) — Five people linked to the removal of a statue of Junipero Serra at a California church in October have been charged with felony vandalism, a move that San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone applauded as a “breakthrough moment for Catholics.”
Cordileone, in a statement on Friday (Nov. 13), said the charges will be the first time that any of the protesters who have toppled Serra statues across California “will be held accountable for their actions in a court of law.”
In an Oct. 26 letter, Cordileone had asked the district attorney to “press charges to the full extent of the law,” and urged that they also be charged with a hate crime.
Melissa Aguilar, Mayorgi Nadieska Delgadillo, Victoria Eva Montano Pena, Moira Van De Walker and Andrew Lester Mendle are each facing one count of felony vandalism for leveling a statue at Mission San Rafael Arcángel in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, according to a complaint filed Thursday (Nov. 12) and provided to Religion News Service by the Marin County District Attorney’s Office.
Damages were estimated at $10,000, according to the complaint.
“If crimes like these are not punished, then the government is telling mobs they get to decide what symbols Catholics and other faiths may display,” Cordileone said.
The incident occurred during a demonstration on Indigenous People’s Day to protest the colonization of Native Americans, according to The Mercury News. Images show the statue was knocked down and sprayed with red paint.
While Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan priest and Catholic saint, is credited with spreading the Catholic faith in what is now California, critics say he was part of an imperial conquest that enslaved Native Americans.
Across California this year protesters have toppled Serra statues in San Francisco, Los Angeles and in Sacramento. Some Catholic parishes in Orange, Monterey and Los Angeles counties have removed statues of Serra in fear of potential vandalism.
This public scrutiny of Serra has reemerged in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests denouncing institutional racism and police brutality and led to the toppling of monuments honoring Confederate leaders.
Cordileone and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez have issued letters staunchly defending the image and history of Serra and criticizing those who defaced the statues.
These responses have galvanized Indigenous scholars who want the Catholic Church to fully admit to a history of colonialism that led to the loss of culture and land among the Native community.