The LDS Church issued a strongly-worded statement Monday apologizing to the Roman Catholic Church for the actions of some of its missionaries in Colorado.
"Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were dismayed this weekend to learn of the insensitivity and disrespect shown to religious artifacts of the Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church in San Luis, Colorado, and that Latter-day Saint missionaries were evidently responsible during their missionary service in 2006," said Bruce Olsen, managing director of the church's public affairs department.
"Their actions do not represent the high standards of behavior for which our missionaries are known all over the world."
Photos that had been posted on the Internet showed three LDS missionaries mocking a Catholic shrine and holding the broken head of a statue of a saint there, a Catholic 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 one another.
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.
Olsen said the LDS Church has initiated a "thorough investigation" of the incident and has arranged for a meeting with Catholic leaders to offer apologies.
"We are providing the names of those involved to law enforcement officials and will continue to cooperate fully with those investigating the incident as well as with officials of the Roman Catholic Church. Those missionaries who have since returned home will face disciplinary action from the church," the statement read. "The missionary who was still serving in Colorado has also been disciplined and his mission terminated."
"The community is sad; it feels they've been victimized," Sangre de Cristo Parish Council spokesman Alonzo Payne said Monday. The parish has nine churches and about 450 families across Costilla County.
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 parish council, based near the New Mexico line in San Luis, voted Sunday to ask for the investigation.
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.
Olsen called the missionaries' actions "inexcusable" and said respect for other faiths is a "cardinal tenet" of the LDS Church.
"The church has worked for many years side by side with leaders and members of other faiths, including the Roman Catholic Church, and has often helped them with construction or renovation of buildings for religious worship. We have also worked hand-in-hand with Catholic Charities in providing humanitarian assistance to alleviate suffering across the globe," he said.
"The church expresses its profound regret and sincere apologies to the members of the Roman Catholic faith, to the members of the Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church and the townspeople of San Luis, for this senseless act."
Olsen said church leaders would look for ways to repair the damage that has been caused to relationships with the community.
Photobucket released a statement saying that it had no record of the shrine photos but that its rules forbid content that is illegal, obscene or threatening.