Monday, March 10, 2008

Church to vote on vandalism charges

Officials of the Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church may decide whether to file charges against three Mormon missionaries in the 2006 vandalism of a local shrine.

Church members earlier last week found Internet photos that showed them vandalizing the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs in 2006 and mocking the Roman Catholic faith.

A regional missionary official for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has acknowledged the men depicted in the photos were missionaries working in the San Luis Valley that year, and said the church would discipline the men. He would not, however, identify them.

Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church members discovered a Web photo Thursday that showed an LDS missionary holding the severed head of a statue at the shrine, which sits next to the Stations of the Cross on a mesa above town.

Townspeople since found the head had been placed back on the statue.

Other photos, also posted on the Photobucket Web site, but removed after Thursday, depicted another missionary who appeared to preach from the Book of Mormon inside the Chapel of All Saints.

A third photo showed one missionary pretending to sacrifice another on the altar at the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs.

Members of the Sangre de Cristo parish built the Stations of the Cross in 1987. Parishioners in the 2000s built the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs, both which Valdez said have become major tourist attractions. No dollar amount has been determined for damage resulting from the vandalism.

Cpl. Scott Powell, of the Costilla County Sheriff's office, said the men could face up to six charges, including felonies for criminal mischief and conspiracy.

"What they did was extremely imprudent, extremely uncharitable and inflammatory," the Rev. Pat Valdez told parishioners at a meeting Friday night. "You have worked hard and this whole community has worked hard to build that shrine as an expression of our faith and an expression of our love of God."

The Sangre de Cristo parish council is expected to vote today on whether to request that charges be filed against the three men.

Robert Fotheringham, who is in charge of the LDS church's missionary program in parts of four states, and whose region includes the San Luis Valley, declined to release names of the missionaries.

He did confirm, however, that the three in the pictures were church missionaries, who at the time were serving in the towns of Manassa and Sanford.

"We're just mortified this has happened. This is not what we're about," he said.

He said the three, who come from California, Idaho and Nevada, would face restrictions on their church memberships, although he declined to discuss the nature of the restrictions.

Fotheringham met with Valdez and other community members Friday morning and presented them with a written apology from one of the missionaries, signed by an R. Thompson.

"I realize that my companions and I have made a mockery of that which is most sacred to many of the residents of San Luis and the rest of the world. I should have known better because I have seen many of the same types of blasphemies made against my own church and I have been appalled," the statement said.

Frotheringham said Mormon missionaries are trained in church doctrine before they depart on their missions, but they don't receive special instructions about the areas where they will be stationed.

However, he said the missionaries' handbook instructs them to respect the culture, customs, religious beliefs and sacred sites of communities that missionaries visit.

Many in attendance at Friday night's meeting expressed belief the missionaries should be held accountable for their actions.

One man said "turning the other cheek" means community members should not try to take revenge. They should, however, uphold personal accountability by filing charges.

Valdez echoed some of the man's sentiments moments later.

"That's understood in this room. There's no hate, there's no revenge," he said.
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