Sunday, March 23, 2008

DENVER — Four Mormon missionaries accused of defacing a Catholic shrine in southern Colorado have received an Easter week pardon.

The Costilla County Sheriff’s office dropped its investigation Thursday at the request of Bishop Arthur Tafoya of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pueblo, who issued a letter urging forgiveness for the missionaries.

“I ask that we as Catholics, who believe in the forgiveness of Christ, will ourselves forgive and pray for the young men who showed such a lack of tolerance and understanding,” said Bishop Tafoya in his Easter letter to the Pueblo diocese parishes.

That was good enough for the sheriff’s office, which launched the probe two weeks ago at the request of the Sangre de Cristo parish council.

“The investigation is over,” said Cpl. Scott Powell, the lead investigator. “Bishop Tafoya spoke to Father Pat [Valdez] at the San Luis Valley parish and made the recommendation. Basically, he felt like it was necessary to forgive and forget.”

The missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faced possible criminal charges after photographs on the Web site showed them mocking the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs at the Chapel of All Saints, which stands on a butte overlooking San Luis.

The photos, taken in 2006 but not discovered until earlier this month, showed one missionary picking up the severed head of a stone statue with the caption, “Hannemann broke the head off of a saint.” Another photo depicted a missionary pretending to sacrifice another on the shrine’s altar, while in another a missionary appears to preach from the Book of Mormon inside the Chapel of All Saints.

Robert Fotheringham, the Colorado Springs Mormon mission president, said he was “very grateful” for the bishop’s decision.

He also confirmed that four missionaries were involved in the incident, although only three were shown in the photographs posted online.

“It was not a total surprise — we worked with those wonderful people in the Catholic community on this, and it’s entirely consistent with who they are,” Mr. Fotheringham said.

He added that he had not yet discussed the reprieve with the missionaries, whose identities have never been revealed. Among the charges under consideration were felony criminal mischief and felony conspiracy.

“I can only imagine they’re grateful,” Mr. Fotheringham said.

The missionaries still face disciplinary action by the Mormon church for their “insensitivity and disrespect,” according to a church statement. Three had already completed their missions when the photos were discovered, and the fourth has had his mission terminated.

Earlier this month, Mr. Fotheringham led a contingent of Mormon leaders to San Luis to apologize and offer to make restitution for the damaged statue. That offer still stands, he said yesterday.

Mormons represent a decided minority in the heavily Catholic community of San Luis, although their presence appears to be growing. The town’s first Mormon church is now under construction and slated to open in May.

The missionaries were assigned to a community about a 45-minute drive away, said Mr. Fotheringham, but were spending the day in San Luis when the incident occurred. He said he was ready to release the names of the missionaries to authorities when he received word the investigation was closed.

“We were prepared to give their names to law enforcement. I had the names ready to give them, and then I got this wonderful news,” said Mr. Fotheringham.

County Commissioner Ed Vigil predicted most locals would be pleased by the bishop’s move, calling San Luis “a very forgiving community.”

“It was three individuals who made a bad decision,” Mr. Vigil said. “I’m not surprised Bishop Tafoya would do this. It’s the Christian way of doing stuff — you’ve got to forgive your neighbor.”

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