With a couple of hours to kill in Wellington on Monday I tossed up between the spy dome trial and Te Papa. Since it was a sunny afternoon and Te Papa offered a longer walk along Wellington's new waterfront I went there.

Wrong decision. Had I looked in at the District Court I would now possess at least a visual impression of the jury that decided the deliberate destruction of the dome was not a criminal act.

I might have even chanced to hear some of the argument that evidently persuaded these 12 random citizens wilful damage was lawful because the perpetrators thought it was.

I have met one of the defendants. Peter Murnane may be a radical priest but he is not a fool.

I do not believe he honestly imagined his action was lawful. No doubt he believes he was morally justified but that was not the defence offered for him.

Lawyers have explained that the "claim of right" defence to wilful damage has to be an honest misconception of the law, not a claim of moral right.

Father Murnane and his co-defendants probably understood this even if the jury did not.

Jury decisions can be perverse and do not set precedents we are told. But this one hurts because the senseless act of vandalism, as Helen Clark called it at the time, was a slight to the rights of all of us and the acquittal compounds it.

The nature of the injury is well understood by demonstrators who resort to wilful damage.

It has little to do with the material value of the property they have effectively appropriated for their cause.

The real sting lies in the contempt their actions express for decisions we have democratically made and law we agree to respect for fair and civilised communion.

Vandalism makes a mockery of civilised protest as well as parliamentary procedure.

A man named Murray Horton was campaigning against the Government Communications Security Bureau's satellite receivers at Canterbury University 40 years ago and has organised a march to Waihopai almost every summer since. He looks a little foolish now.

He has never received more than a fraction of the attention that the Murnane trio attracted and for good reason. Horton was trying to talk to us, Murnane was not. Saboteurs do not expect to win any converts with their tactics. Horton's task is much harder and Murnane has made it harder still.

The white domes that blot the landscape near Blenheim meant little to me until I picked up a newspaper that morning and saw one of them in tatters.

By what right, I wondered, could anybody assume they could do this sort of thing?

What arrogance, what conceit, what superior sense of righteousness leads someone to step outside respectful procedures of protest and public decisions and destroy an item of collective possession?

The offenders in this case were religious. After slashing the dome they reportedly built a shrine and knelt in prayer for victims of United States military activity.

They said they were "responding to the Bush Administration's admission that intelligence gathering is the most important tool in the so-called war on terror".

A spokesman said their first goal was to be faithful to the gospels and if their action drew public attention to the spybase "that is a bonus".

Religious people who apply their idealism to a political cause can avoid personal responsibility. Father Murnane will feel impelled by something he believes to be outside himself, his actions will seem to him to be utterly selfless.

He may not be aware of the injury he does to people such as me, but if he is aware he will think my injury justified by a higher cause. If he is beginning to sound like radicals of another religion, I don't want to take this too far.

The damage was reckoned to be up to $1 million. Priests don't pay much tax. When he sank his sickle into the dome did he have the decency to feel wretched? Maybe it's as well I didn't go to the court.

Te Papa turned out to have been worth revisiting in the light of the resignation the next day of the director of the Auckland Museum.

Whatever Vanda Vitali's disagreements with her board, she maintained the better institution. Te Papa these days has the air of a bankrupt circus. The glittering performance is still there but everyone has seen it and there is nowhere it can go.

I wandered back along the waterfront to the City Gallery where a lovely choral recording was playing through a ring of speakers in an empty room.

The dome saboteurs should have been there. Up close to each speaker you could hear an individual voice in the choir. None was as good as the whole.