News question: Why are statues of this saint going the way of Confederate monuments?


First, it was the defacing (or removing) of Confederate statues in the East and South.

Now it’s the defacing and vandalism of St. Junipero Serra statues in the West. This is a comparatively new wrinkle in the news -- this trend of destroying the symbols of history with which one doesn’t personally agree. I wonder if such vandalism is the new normal. This certainly raises reporting questions for journalists covering this kind of story.

For the latest on what’s happening in California, we turn to various local media on how they’ve covered the latest incidents. First, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

A bronze statue of the Roman Catholic priest Junipero Serra at the Old Santa Barbara Mission was decapitated and doused with red paint on Sunday night or early Monday morning.
The statue, on the western side of the Central Coast property near the mission's office, has since been covered with a tarp. The Santa Barbara mission has been called the "Queen of the Missions."
The statue was vandalized in a similar fashion as another Father Serra statue in Monterey last year. That figure, which was beheaded but not painted, has since been repaired. Another, in Santa Cruz, was vandalized with the word "genocide" in late 2015.

Then comes a tiny piece of background:

Serra was a Franciscan friar in the 18th century who founded nine of the state's 21 missions. He was canonized as a saint in 2015 by Pope Francis -- a decision that met criticism by those who believe Serra unfairly treated Native Americans. Some say that Serra "imposed" Christianity upon natives, forcing them convert and then work on building missions while relinquishing their traditions, customs, dress, and language in favor of Spanish ones. 

The article ends soon after that, with no quotes from anyone (the local Catholic diocese, for instance) decrying the vandalism and the assumptions that led up to it.

As you would expect, from a publication dedicated to Catholic coverage, Crux had a helpful explanation of who Serra was near the top.

An 18th century Spanish Franciscan, Serra is remembered in Catholic circles as the missionary who brought the faith to the West Coast of the Americas, having founded nine missions himself from San Francisco to San Diego, and he inspired the creation of twelve others after his death in 1784. He’s formally known as the “Apostle of California.”

A local newsletter known as also had details. 

Los Angeles’ CBS affiliate ran a piece last month about another defacing of a Junipero Serra statue. It said in part that the vandalism:

… comes at a time when many are calling for the removal of controversial statues. Some argue Serra is not the saint the Catholic Church paints him out to be. Instead, they claim he used California Indians and destroyed part of their culture.

Again, there was no response from any Catholic official or historian suggesting this could be a skewed view of Serra. Instead, the vandals’ views –- such as they are -– are given credence. Did Catholic officials decline comment or refuse to be interviewed? If so, as tmatt noted yesterday in a post on a different topic, editors should let readers know than an attempt was made to get input from church leaders.

Back to the coverage: When the Los Angeles Times covered the same incident, they gave a lot more background.

St. Serra, a Franciscan friar who founded nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco, was credited for bringing Catholicism to California when it was under Spanish rule. Twelve other missions were erected after his death in 1784.
But to many Native Americans and others, Serra is a symbol of the mission system's oppression. Converted natives were kept separate from those who had not embraced Christianity, and some missions flogged and imprisoned those who tried to leave.
Pope Francis and other supporters say Serra was a defender of Native Americans and reshaped the culture of the West.
Serra "sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it," Francis said during Serra’s canonization ceremony in 2015.

The bigger question is who is doing these defacings? Are these kids? Anti-Catholics? The same people who are trying to get Confederate monuments torn down? Is this about religion or something else? I believe there's been three incidents since 2015, so isn’t it time someone asks more questions as to who and why?

The Ventura County Star was the only publication that mentioned that police in Santa Barbara are working with investigators in other cities where such vandalism has occurred.

It also mentioned Pope Francis’ quote calling Serra “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”

It's kind of odd that there hasn't been much comment from local Catholic officials over this trend. Either they don't want to draw attention to it or they don't think it's a big deal. But the continued defacing of religious statues is significant. The puzzle, for journalists, is in discerning what exactly it signifies. It might help to talk to Catholic leaders?

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