Amid calls from California activists to drop vandalism charges against five assailants who destroyed a statue of St. Junípero Serra last year, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco warned that doing so would set a dangerous precedent.

“If a crime caught on videotape and witnessed by the police were not to have been prosecuted, it would have sent a profoundly disturbing message to the hundreds of thousands of people of faith in Marin County: churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are at the mercy of small mobs,” Cordileone said in a Feb. 19 statement.

“Even more, this would set an extremely troubling precedent in that no one could be secure that those who perpetrate crimes against them will be prosecuted for their wrongdoing.”

On Oct. 12, 2020— Indigenous People’s Day in California— a group of activists defaced and pulled down a statue of St. Junípero Serra on private property at Mission San Rafael Arcángel in San Rafael, about 20 miles north of San Francisco.

Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan priest and missionary, is viewed by some activists as a symbol of colonialism and of the abuses that many Native Americans suffered after contact with Europeans. However, historians say the missionary protested abuses and sought to fight colonial oppression.

Though Serra himself did not found Mission San Rafael, it owes its existence to Serra’s legacy, as he founded the first nine missions in what would become California.

During the hourlong October protest, organized by members of the Coast Miwok tribe, several masked people peeled off the duct tape and threw red paint in the statue’s face. At least five people were captured on local news footage pulling on the statue’s head with nylon cords and ropes, dragging it to the ground.

Of the group that destroyed the statue, police arrested and recommended charges for six individuals. District Attorney Lori Frugoli subsequently charged five of those people, all women, with felony vandalism.

Two of the women charged hailed from Oakland, one was a local, and two were from nearby communities.

Four of the five assailants, who are now calling themselves the “Indigenous Peoples Day 5”, were arraigned late last year, and the last of the five was arraigned Feb. 18.

“I want above all to thank the San Rafael Police Department and the Marin County District Attorney’s Office for recognizing that social justice requires justice: that all of us enjoy the equal protection of the laws,” Cordileone concluded.

Catholics rallied in a peaceful prayer demonstration the day after the riot, with Father Kyle Faller, parochial vicar at the mission, leading a rosary and urging the crowd of 75-100 people to persevere in prayer, and offering a reflection on Christ’s forgiveness in the face of persecution.

Cordileone performed an exorcism at the site of the statue Oct. 17, calling the statue’s destruction an act of blasphemy.

Cordileone had in late October 2020 asked the Marin County district attorney to prosecute those arrested after the riot at a mission church to the “full extent of the law.” He also seconded the San Rafael Police Department’s request that the six individuals be charged with vandalism in a house of worship, a hate crime.

“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,” he wrote to Frugoli at the time.

In contrast, some activists in California continue to call for the charges against the five assailants to be dropped, and repeating claims that Serra facilitated, or at least represents, the destruction of native California.

An online petition demanding that the district attorney drop the charges, anonymously posted by a group calling itself Decolonizers Defense, has garnered nearly 77,000 signatures as of Monday morning.

“While monuments to racism and violence are being removed across the state, the city of San Rafael is refusing to recognize the harms perpetrated against Indigenous people by Serra and instead has decided to file felony charges against five of the fifty demonstrators,” the petition reads.

During a recent online press conference hosted by the Anti-Police Terror Project, a San Francisco activist group, an indigenous leader defended the assailants’ actions and repeated charges that Serra himself was racist and participated in genocide.

Corrina Gould, tribal spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, called the Catholic Church a “worldwide epidemic of colonization and genocide” and demanded the charges against the assailants be dropped in favor of “a different solution.”

“Who needs to be in court right now is the Catholic Church. They need to be held accountable for the horrific crimes they have created around the world,” she stated, and denounced Cordileone for his opposition to “gay rights” as well as his advocacy for reopening churches amid the pandemic.

A lawyer for three of the assailants, Hasmik Geghamyan, said at the press conference that Frugoli’s charges represented an effort to “target and harm dynamic activists who provide so much support, healing, and justice in their communities.”

CNA contacted Geghamyan and James Burch, Policy Director for the Anti Police-Terror Project, but did not receive responses by press time.

Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015 during a visit to the United States.

Statues of Serra in 2020 became focal points for protests and demonstrations across California, with images of the saint being torn down or vandalized in protest of California’s colonial past. Nationally, rioters have targeted Catholic churches and statues of Christ and Mary.

During the eighteenth century, Serra founded nine Catholic missions in the area that would later become California, and many of those missions would go on to become the centers of major California cities.

While many Native peoples did suffer horrific abuse, an archaeologist told CNA last year that activists tend to conflate the abuses the Natives suffered long after Serra’s death with the period when Serra was alive and building the missions.

Serra’s defenders say that in his lifetime he was actually an advocate for native people, at one point drafting a 33-point “bill of rights” for the Native Americans living in the mission settlements, and walking from California to Mexico City to present it to the Spanish viceroy.

Cordileone noted these historical facts about Serra in his February 2021 letter.

“Junípero Serra lived a life of sacrificial devotion to the poor, the weak and the marginalized in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi. To Catholics, that means that he is a great saint. It is for good reason that Pope Francis canonized him on American soil in 2015,” he wrote.

“While St. Junípero’s dedication to protecting the native peoples of California is documented by historians, nevertheless – sadly and falsely – to some St. Junípero has become a symbol of the terrible human rights abuses committed against California indigenous peoples by Spanish conquerors and later the genocide perpetrated on them by the Anglo Americans who governed California. To heal and unite is not easy; it requires dialogue with good will, honesty and humility, and above all putting aside violence as a response.”

Protesters tore down several statues of Serra in California last year.

A statue of the saint was torn down in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on June 19 by a crowd of about 100 people, and on the same day a statue of the saint was torn down in Los Angeles.

Rioters pulled down and defaced a statue of Serra in Sacramento on July 4, inspiring a local Catholic to set up a makeshift shrine to Serra on the statue's empty plinth July 5, and leading other Catholics in cleaning graffiti from the site.

Earlier this month, an anonymous group of activists claimed to have graffitied a statue of Serra near a rest stop along Interstate 280 “in solidarity” with the San Rafael assailants.