Charges reduced for ‘Indigenous Peoples 5’ in toppling of Junipero Serra statue

(RNS) — Nearly three years after five protesters were charged with felony vandalism for toppling and spray-painting a Junipero Serra statue in Northern California, the Marin County District Attorney’s Office announced on Thursday (May 25) that the case had been resolved with charges reduced from felonies to misdemeanors.

Under the agreement, defendants must pay monetary restitution to the church for the repair or replacement of the statue, complete 50 hours of volunteer work, apologize in writing in an official court record, and participate in an upcoming community meeting with a historian to engage in “meaningful dialogue about the issue.”

The defendants must also stay off the church property.

The five charged in Marin County Superior Court were: Ines Shiam Gardilcic, 40; Victoria Eva Montanopena, 29; Melissa Aguilar, 36; Mayorgi Nadeska Delgadillo, 36; and Moira Cribben Van de Walker, 25, according to a news release from the Marin County District Attorney’s Office.

Since the toppling of the statue at Mission San Rafael Arcángel in San Rafael in the fall of 2020, more than 80,000 have signed a petition urging District Attorney Lori Frugoli to drop the charges against them.

The incident occurred during a demonstration on Indigenous People’s Day to protest the colonization of Native Americans, according to news reports.

Images show the statue was knocked down and sprayed with red paint. 

People deface and tear down a statue of Junipero Serra in San Rafael, California, on Oct. 12, 2020. Video screen grab via KTVU

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. 

The defendants, who have become known as the “Indigenous Peoples 5,” participated in a restorative justice process while the case made its way through the court system, the district attorney’s office said.

Marin County District Attorney Lori E. Frugoli said a resolution came after a “thorough case review by prosecutors and a long discussion among church members, community members, legal counsel for the defendants and the defendants’ participation in the Restorative Justice Process.”

“While this issue has raised emotions because of the sensitivities around religion, community boundaries, and historic inequities, the fact is that a resolution through accountability has been reached through restorative justice and that is a victory for this community,” Frugoli said in the news release.

Not everyone agrees.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, in a letter on May 24, said he was “disturbed but not surprised” by the decision to reduce the charges against the five defendants.

“You have given the signal that attacks on Catholic houses of worship may continue without serious legal consequence,” Cordileone said in the letter addressing the district attorney.

Cordileone applauded the felony charges in 2020 as a “breakthrough moment for Catholics,” after urging the district attorney to “press charges to the full extent of the law.”

He also pressed for hate crime charges to be filed.

Now, Cordileone says the archdiocese was shut out during the restorative justice process, adding that the mediator in the case treated “the perpetrators as if they were the victims.” 

“The point is, a felony crime was committed: The law does not allow people to trespass onto private property and destroy it, all the more so when the private property is a house of worship and the property being destroyed has sacred value to the members of the congregation,” Cordileone said. 

The archbishop accused police of standing by when the statue was damaged and claimed that the criticisms of Serra were unfounded.

He also claimed that a written apology was insufficient.

Jessa Calderon, right, cries and embraces another demonstrator following the toppling of a Junipero Serra statue June 20, 2020, in downtown Los Angeles at Father Serra Park. Photo by Erick Iñiguez

Jessa Calderon, right, cries and embraces another demonstrator following the toppling of a Junipero Serra statue June 20, 2020, in downtown Los Angeles at Father Serra Park. Photo by Erick Iñiguez

“Acknowledging wrongdoing is the first step in restorative justice,” he said in the statement. “A simple ‘I’m sorry’ falls pitifully short of reparation for the harm that was done.”

Throughout 2020, protesters in California toppled Serra statues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in Sacramento. The public scrutiny of Serra 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 issued letters staunchly defending the image and history of Serra and criticizing those who defaced the statues.

These responses galvanized Indigenous scholars who called on the Catholic Church to fully admit to a history of colonialism that led to the loss of culture and land among the Native community.