WINDSOR TERRACE — When Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco looked at the video that captured images of a mob toppling a statue of St. Junipero Serra at the Mission San Rafael in Northern California last month, he felt personal pain.
“When I watched the video of a mob chuckling with glee as they tore down and tried to degrade the statue of this great and holy man, I felt it as a wound to my soul,” he told The Tablet.
“St. Junipero Serra was a part of my life and my formation as a Catholic,” he added.
On October 12, protesters tore down and defaced a statue of the saint at the mission located in San Rafael, California. The attackers also spray-painted red paint on the face of the statue. Five suspects were arrested following the incident. Lori Frugoli, the district attorney of Marin County, recently announced that the suspects will be prosecuted on charges of felony vandalism.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco, which Archbishop Cordileone heads, includes the city of San Francisco as well as Marin County.
Activists have been targeting St. Junipero Serra in recent months, charging the 18th-century Franciscan missionary treated Native Americans brutally in his efforts to convert them to Catholicism. However, historians have disputed those claims, saying he cared for and advocated for the rights of Native Americans.
While Archbishop Cordileone applauded the prosecution of the five suspects in the Mission San Rafael case and called it “a breakthrough moment for Catholics,” he warned that if anti-Catholic attacks are not dealt with swiftly and seriously by law enforcement authorities, bigots will see it as a license to do more damage.
There has been a string of desecrations of statues across the country this year, including several attacks in California.
“Here’s the truth: In seven previous incidents on public or parish grounds, not a single person was arrested, much less prosecuted,” Archbishop Cordileone told The Tablet. “To the perpetrators who thought this was a great idea, it must have seemed like they had the approval of the government to attack St. Junipero Serra wherever and whenever they want.”
Archbishop Cordileone charged that societal indifference to the serious nature of these crimes is a factor in why they keep happening.
“Part of it is that the people who run society seem to believe that tolerating property crimes when it is on behalf of a political cause they believe in is okay,” he said.
Catholics were deeply hurt by the Oct. 12 statue desecration but determined to stay steadfast to their faith, according to the archbishop.
“Within four hours of announcing a prayer rally in front of the spot where the statue stood at Mission San Rafael the day after it was toppled, almost 100 Catholics showed up,” he said. “When someone trespasses on your holy ground and destroys your sacred symbols, it’s very disturbing. When people organize a pre-planned attack, as this one was (the mob showed up equipped with chisels, ropes, and red spray paint), it’s doubly disturbing.”
The archbishop took the unusual step of performing an exorcism at the site on Oct. 17.
“I felt two things were necessary: to purify our holy place from the evil present there with a minor exorcism and to call on the Marin County district attorney to prosecute for a serious crime,” he said.
The desecration of a statue is not a minor incident, he said.
“If it goes unpunished, the civil authorities will be saying that small mobs get to decide what symbols of faith we may display on our own property,” Archbishop Cordileone said.