Statue topplers are being charged with felony vandalism -- a first
Monuments to St. Junípero Serra have been destroyed throughout California. His statues were toppled in Golden Gate Park (San Francisco), Capitol Park (Sacramento), and Serra Park (Los Angeles). Meanwhile, cities and school districts have rebranded buildings named after him and removed his statues from their grounds in an attempt to get ahead of the vandalism. The anger behind the destruction is not necessarily directed at St. Junípero himself, but at the physical and cultural abuse Native Americans suffered in the name of “Manifest Destiny.” As his name is synonymous with the California mission system, St. Junípero has become, in the public eye, the figurehead for these abuses. As such, heads have begun to roll.
On Columbus Day, also known in California as Indigenous Peoples Day, protestors took aim at a statue of St. Junípero located on the grounds of Mission San Rafael in Marin County in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. First they smeared it with red paint but were not satisfied until they had bound it with ropes and torn it down, leaving only the saint’s mangled feet atop the stained pedestal.
This is where the story diverges from earlier examples of such destruction. The statue was not torn down in a public park or voted to be removed by the City Council. This statue was vandalized and destroyed on private property, as it stood on the Mission grounds, outside St. Raphael Church and elementary school. As Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone quickly pointed out, this was an act of vandalism and hatred directed at Catholics where they worship, where they celebrate the sacraments, and where they send their children to school.
“In our view, this attack on a cherished religious symbol on our own church property is not a minor property crime, but an attack on Catholics as a people,” Cordileone said. “If the perpetrators of this crime are not brought to justice, small mobs will be able to decide what religious symbols all people of faith may display on their own property to further their faith, and they will continue to inflict considerable spiritual suffering on ordinary Catholic people who would see our sacred spaces as unprotected by law” (from the archbishop’s “Letter: Marin D.A. Asked to Press Maximum Charges in Serra Statue Vandalism,” 10/26/20)
In the weeks following the statue’s destruction, Cordileone celebrated Mass at the Mission church, issued public letters to the Marin County District Attorney’s office asking that criminal charges be brought against the perpetrators, and performed an exorcism at the statue’s remains. He cast light on the issue while buoyed by the support of the faithful through FreeTheMass.com and online petitions against unjust COVID-related restrictions on worship and mob violence directed at churches.
What happened at Mission San Rafael was wrong. Destruction of symbols of our faith is wrong. Trespassing and vandalism on Church property is wrong. But the exorcism Cordileone performed at the site of the felled statue points to something darker than right and wrong. It calls out the presence of evil by its name. A group, no matter the size, can manifest something sinister, something much worse than the sum of its parts. The actions of such a mob, a being unto itself, incensed by self-righteousness and pride, can do great physical and spiritual harm.
San Rafael police apprehended the vandals as they walked away from the site of their crime. Unlike so many who have desecrated statues, churches, and other physical elements of our faith, these individuals didn’t get far. After the outcry from the community of Catholic faithful, and at the urging of Archbishop Cordileone, the DA is pursuing charges of felony vandalism, marking the first time such crimes are a subject for the courtroom, not just the press and the pulpit. This is “a breakthrough moment for Catholics,” as Cordileone put it.
We cannot rely on the police or the DA to prosecute evil, but we can demand that they seek justice, ensure retribution for crimes, and prevent trespassers from wantonly desecrating our houses of worship and the symbols of our religion. Ultimately, we the faithful must gird ourselves for the spiritual warfare that is at our door.