California prosecutors have charged five people for their alleged roles in toppling a statue of controversial Catholic saint Junípero Serra at a Spanish mission last month on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who has been leading his fellow Catholic bishops in the state in vocally defending Serra’s complicated legacy, called Marin County prosecutors’ decision to file felony vandalism charges last Thursday a “breakthrough moment for Catholics.”

“In a diverse society we may debate and disagree about many things, including St. Junípero Serra’s legacy. But mobs do not get to trespass on other people’s holy grounds to destroy their sacred symbols,” Cordileone wrote in a statement last Friday.

Cordileone said that “hundreds” of Catholics in his archdiocese supported his call to prosecute the suspects in the Oct. 12 incident in San Rafael, California. He said this was the first time amid a wave of public attacks on Serra statues that anyone had been charged for attacking such a monument or related acts of vandalism on Catholic Church property in California.

Protesters pull down a statue of St. Junípero Serra at Mission San Rafael Arcángel in San Rafael, California, oScreenshot from CBS-Los Angeles Protesters pull down a statue of St. Junípero Serra at Mission San Rafael Arcángel in San Rafael, California, on Oct. 12, 2020.

The five people charged are Melissa Aguilar, Mayorgi Nadieska Delgadillo, Victoria Eva Montano Pena, Moira Van De Walker and Andrew Lester Mendle, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by HuffPost.

Native American groups have long criticized the Catholic Church’s celebration of Serra, an 18th-century Roman Catholic missionary whose legacy is inextricably tied to Spain’s colonization of California. While the church defends Serra as a charitable figure who pressed Spanish authorities to act as benevolent conquerors, Native groups say the Spanish missions he helped construct brutalized Indigenous peoples and their cultures.

Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015, over the protests of Native groups.

A bronze statue of St. Junípero Serra, located at the entrance to the Old Mission Santa Ines in Solvang, California, i George Rose via Getty Images A bronze statue of St. Junípero Serra, located at the entrance to the Old Mission Santa Ines in Solvang, California, is surrounded by a chainlink fence to protect it on Nov. 2, 2020.

This spring, as racial justice protests across the country reenergized calls for the removal of Confederate statues and symbols, Native Americans in California renewed demonstrations against monuments to Serra. Protesters toppled statues of the saint in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and at least one other city demoted a Serra statue from its pedestal outside City Hall to a nonpublic location.

Organizers with the Coast Miwok, a Native group indigenous to Marin County, planned a protest of a Serra statue at Mission San Rafael Arcángel for Indigenous Peoples’ Day (also known as Columbus Day), according to Fox affiliate KTVU. Some members of the crowd defaced the statue with red paint and pulled it down, video footage captured by KTVU shows.

Protest organizers told KTVU that while they did not ask supporters to physically remove the statue on that day, they were glad it happened.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (center) arrives to conduct an exorcism in San Rafael, California, on Oct. 17, 2020, on the s Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (center) arrives to conduct an exorcism in San Rafael, California, on Oct. 17, 2020, on the spot where a statue of St. Junípero Serra was toppled during a protest five days earlier.

Five days after the protest, Cordileone held an exorcism at the site, asking God to purify the area of “evil spirits” and purify “the hearts of those who perpetrated this blasphemy.” It was the second time the archbishop had performed an exorcism related to protests against Serra.

According to last week’s legal complaint, damage to the statue is estimated to cost at least $10,000.

Cordileone had originally called for hate crime charges against the five individuals as well, claiming that the defacement and removal of the statue amounted to “an attack on Catholics as a people.”

San Rafael Police Chief Diana Bishop had also recommended hate crime charges. She told Mercury News this week that prosecutors informed her they didn’t have the evidence to pursue such charges.

Rev. Luello Palacpac, the pastor of the church located at Mission San Rafael Arcángel, said his church members “enthusiastically” supported the prosecution.

“Whether you agree or disagree with the historic record of St. Junípero, no one has a right to trespass on a faith community’s sacred grounds to destroy property and even more importantly the symbols of its faith,” he said.

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