Sunday, March 9, 2008

Former LDS Missionaries Caught Vandalizing Roman Catholic Shrine In San Luis, Colorado; Catholic Congregation Votes To Press Charges

As a result of photographs posted on Photobucket (but since taken down once the story broke), three former missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been identified as the perpetrators of acts of vandalism committed at a Roman Catholic shrine in San Luis, Colorado back in 2006. Original story posted in the Pueblo (CO) Chieftain; updated story posted by the Denver Post. Story now picked up by the Salt Lake Tribune and also by KUTV Channel 2, which includes part of a statement by LDS Church Headquarters.

The complete statement by LDS Church Headquarters is posted HERE.

NOTE: Updated post HERE. No criminal charges will be preferred.

Members of the local Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church found the Internet photos earlier this past week which showed the three missionaries, dressed in customary white shirts, ties, and dark trousers, replete with official name tags, vandalizing the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs and mocking the Roman Catholic faith in 2006, while the three were in official missionary service to the LDS Church.

One photo showed a missionary holding the severed head of a statue (the damage has since been repaired). Another photo showed a missionary mock-preaching from the Book of Mormon inside the Chapel of All Saints. And a third photo showed one missionary pretending to sacrifice another missionary upon the altar inside the shrine.

The Reverend Pat Valdez of Sangre de Cristo held a congregational meeting on Friday March 7th, 2008, and was quick to react. "What they did was extremely imprudent, extremely uncharitable and inflammatory," the Rev. Pat Valdez told parishioners. "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 Denver Post reported that the parish council subsequently voted to press criminal charges against the three. 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

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 was determined for damage resulting from the vandalism.

A senior representative of the local LDS community quickly stepped up to the plate to take charge of the situation. 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, confirmed that the three in the pictures were LDS missionaries assigned to the towns of Manassa and Sanford at the time, although he declined to name them.

"We're just mortified this has happened. This is not what we're about," Fotheringham said. He also 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. LDS Church authorities can prescribe three penalties: Probation, disfellowshipment, or excommunication. Assuming that the perpetrators are penitent, probation, which means their temple recommends are suspended and that they would be removed from any positions of authority for a period of time, is the most likely sanction.

Fotheringham also met with Rev. 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.

Commentary: As a member of the LDS Church, I wish to express to Roman Catholics my personal regrets and my absolute personal disgust over the behavior of these missionaries. As missionaries, they weren't merely "ordinary members of the Church"; they were officially set apart to represent the Church in an official calling. They are instructed to comport themselves as if they were the personal representatives of Jesus Christ Himself.

LDS readers of this blog who would like to express their regrets and sympathies directly to Sangre de Cristo can do so either by e-mail at:

or by snail mail, as follows:

Sangre de Cristo Church
P.O. Box 326
San Luis, CO 81152

Don't forget, Mitt Romney just got through spending millions of dollars and untold hours on a presidential campaign which was also intended to eradicate negative biases and stereotypes about the LDS Church. So when LDS members misbehave, we've got to step up to the plate and condemn that misbehavior, otherwise we will have undermined Romney's efforts, as well as those of the 60,000+ missionaries currently in the field, the vast majority of who behave as personal representatives of Jesus Christ.

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