San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone wrote to local prosecutors Wednesday, telling them he is “disturbed but not surprised” at a decision to downgrade the prosecution of five people who desecrated a statue of St. Junipero Serra in 2020.
The letter preceded a May 25 decision to change the charges against the five, who destroyed the statue on the grounds of St Raphael Mission Church during a protest on October 12, 2020, to a misdemeanor instead of a felony offense.
In a May 24 letter to Marin County prosecutors, the archbishop argued that the actions of the five clearly amounted to a felony offense. And while the district attorney’s office has said that the defendants had participated in a restorative justice program, Cordileone said the archdiocese was frozen out of that process.
In his letter to prosecutors, the archbishop said that if the same kind of offense had been committed against another religious congregation or group, it would almost certainly have been prosecuted as a hate crime.
While insisting he was not calling for the offenders to receive a prison sentence for their actions, Cordileone said that the prosecutors’ actions were a betrayal of the archdiocese’s good faith and would feed “a growing mistrust of the American people in their government institutions.”
“They perceive, and for good reason, that government officials do not have their best interests at heart, but instead make decisions based on what is politically advantageous to them,” the archbishop wrote in his May 24 letter.
The Pillar spoke with Archbishop Cordileone on Thursday, asking him about the case, his letter and what it means for the Church to pursue justice and mercy at the same time.
Here’s what he said.
You wrote that you were disturbed by the prosecutor’s decision to reduce to a misdemeanor the charge related to the destruction of the St. Junipero Serra statue on parish property.
Why do you believe it was important that the felony charges move forward?
Because a felony represents an acknowledgment that a serious crime has taken place.
Felony vandalism means the destruction of property amounting to more than $1,000. This is what happened. Multiple witnesses including the police saw it happening. It was captured on cameras. A felony happened and a prosecution for felony is therefore the minimum that justice requires.
Moreover, with widespread attacks on Catholic Church property going unprosecuted, if no action is taken that is a punishment that fits the crime here, it will send the message that such attacks can continue unabated.
And history shows that attacks on property easily morph into attacks on persons.
You mention that you don’t want the defendants to go to prison for their act of destruction. What do you believe would be a just penalty for their action?
I wished first for restorative justice: that they would acknowledge in a deep and sincere way their wrongdoing and publicly repudiate it, and we could work together towards reparations. This has not happened.
My main goal is that not only the defendants but others watching their actions understand the legal system takes trespassing on private property and destroying other people’s religious symbols seriously. A felony prosecution is to me the minimum that achieves that goal.
You indicated that the archdiocese was shut out of a restorative justice process related to the destruction of the statues. Can you describe what happened? What did you hope would have been the outcome of that process?
The mediator treated the perpetrators as victims. It was grotesquely unfair and also unresponsive to the restorative justice process.
The goal of restorative justice is first an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and then a coming together of the perpetrators and the victim to move to a better place. I wish that had happened.
It did not. In fact, I myself, personally, was treated as if I were the problem.
Why do you think that Catholic statues and other ecclesial properties have been subject to so much vandalism in recent years?
The Church stands for so much the powers-that-be hate, especially the dignity of each and every human being, including the unborn, regardless of whether that interferes with our other desires.
The wider culture is painting a terrible picture of who Catholics are and what we believe. That is why I believe telling our own story and being a creative minority is so important. It is one reason I have invested so much in supporting the Benedict XVI Institute and why I’ve supported their petition calling on justice for Catholics.
What is a Catholic response to vandalism or destruction of property? If Catholics want to be like Christ, is it an occasion to rejoice if people seem to hate the Church, in light of John 15:18 and similar Scripture?
Why do you believe pursuing justice is an important value?
A failure to prosecute an open and obvious felony against Church property is an offense to the common good. It threatens not only Catholics but the fabric of society. History shows us that when violence against property is not taken seriously, violence spreads. Anti-Catholicism cannot go unanswered.
We must seek reconciliation and we must seek justice.
St. John Paul II famously forgave Mehmet Ali Ağca, who attempted to assassinate and asked the president of Italy to pardon him. Ağca later converted to Catholicism. What lesson is there in that narrative for the Church?
Forgiveness and reconciliation are always possible and always our first option. We must pray for those who do us wrong. We must be willing to forgive. We must also defend the right of all Americans to worship in safety and dignity. Justice and mercy are not opposed; they complement each other.
Forgiveness with accountability is what brings about peace.