Internet Photos Show Mormon Missionaries Mocking Catholic Shrine

Photos posted on the Internet showed three Mormon missionaries mocking a Catholic shrine and holding the broken head of a statue of a saint there, a church official said.

Costilla County Sheriff Gilbert Martinez said deputies on Monday were beginning to investigate whether the men vandalized the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs at the Chapel of All Saints, which stands on a butte overlooking San Luis.

The photos show young men holding the broken head of a statue, preaching from the Book of Mormon at an altar and pretending to sacrifice each other.

The vandalism apparently occurred in 2006, though damage to the statue went unnoticed until last week, when a parish member saw the photos on the picture-sharing Internet site Photobucket. They have since been taken down.

Robert Fotheringham, a regional missions official for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, confirmed the three men in the photos were church missionaries.

"We have a history of people doing things like this to us, so we're mortified that our missionaries would do it to someone else," Fotheringham said. "It's beyond embarrassing. It's inexcusable."

He declined to release their names.

The damaged statue seen in one of the photos depicts Manuel Morales, who was the 28-year-old president of Mexico's National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty when he was executed in 1926 for refusing to recognize laws he considered anti-religion. He was among more than two dozen Mexican saints canonized in 2000.

The broken head had gone unnoticed because it had been placed back on the statue. The Sangre de Cristo Parish Council, based near the New Mexico line in San Luis, voted Sunday to ask for the investigation.

"The parish was a victim of a crime, and the council felt we should report it," said Alonzo Payne, a lawyer in San Luis who belongs to the parish.

The sheriff said charges could include desecration of a venerated object, criminal trespass, defacing property and bias-motivated crime.

Payne would not rule out a lawsuit seeking the cost of replacing or repairing the statue. The Rev. Patrick Valdez, the parish pastor, referred questions to Payne.