Police Arrest Catholic Priest for Silently Praying Outside Abortion Clinic
National | Steven Ertelt | Feb 9, 2023 | 9:59AM | Washington, DC
Police in the UK have arrested a Catholic priest for silently praying outside an abortion clinic — in what is the third such arrest in recent weeks of peaceful pro-life people.
Father Sean Gough stood silently holding a “praying for free speech” sign near a closed abortion facility to protest recent cases of bogus arrest. But that didn’t stop law enforcement from enforcing a law specifically designed to silent pro-life people and arresting Father Gough and charging him. Father Gough was interrogated, charged with breaching censorship zone which prohibits prayer and the sharing of pregnancy support information.
Gough also faces a further charge related to parking his car, which for some time has had on it a small “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker, within the same area. The area surrounding the facility, located on Station Road, has been covered by a local Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), in force since November, which prohibits prayer, distributing information about pregnancy help services, and other activities considered to constitute “protest”.
For peacefully supporting free speech within the censorship zone, Father Sean Gough was charged with “intimidating service-users” of the abortion facility. This was despite the fact that all this happened while the abortion facility was closed.
“I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray? I often pray in my head near the abortion facility, but at the time in question, I was praying for free speech, which is under severe pressure in our country today. At all times, I believed my actions to be lawful – freedom of expression, especially when peaceful, is protected in domestic and international law. It is deeply undemocratic to censor public streets, particularly those spaces where we know that many women have benefitted from peaceful offers of help about services available,” said Father Sean Gough.
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When police officers initially approached the priest holding the “praying for free speech sign”, they told Father Gough that they did not think that he was breaking rules. However, the priest was later invited for interview at the police station, interrogated on his actions, and eventually criminally charged.
The Crown Prosecution Service subsequently dropped the charges against Father Gough, but made clear that they could be reinstated. Like Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, Father Gough has stated his intention to pursue a clear verdict on his charges in court, in order to clear his name.
Earlier this month, charges were dropped against a pro-life woman who was arrested for praying outside an abortion business.
The good news in the UK comes on the heels of the victory in federal court in Pennsylvania for Mark Houck, who faced 11 years in prison on bogus charges againt him for peacefully protesting abortion.
British police arrested Isabel Vaughan-Spruce late last year for praying silently outside an abortion facility in Birmingham after a censorship zone had been approved prohibiting pro-life people from protesting, counseling, praying or even being located in the zone. Vaughan-Spruce was carrying no sign and remained completely silent until approached by officers and said she “might” have been praying at the time of her arrest.
“It’s abhorrently wrong that I was searched, arrested, interrogated by police and charged simply for praying in the privacy of my own mind. Censorship zones purport to ban harassment, which is already illegal. Nobody should ever be subject to harassment. But what I did was the furthest thing from harmful – I was exercising my freedom of thought, my freedom of religion, inside the privacy of my own mind. Nobody should be criminalized for thinking and for praying, in a public space in the UK,” said Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, following her arrest for silent prayer.
She was eventually charged with with four counts of failing to comply with a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) by breaching an exclusion zone outside a Birmingham abortion clinic.
Her legal team says the charges have been dropped, but they are concerned they could be reinstated down the road.
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Vaughan-Spruce was due in court on Wednesday at Birmingham Magistrates Court.
“It was due to happen today but charges were dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service. Hopefully, we’ll know more soon and can update you then. It’s a lot of work but hopefully, God will use it for good,” Vaughan-Spruce told The Epoch Times by email.
A spokesperson for Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) told The Epoch Times by email: “We review all cases ahead of court where the police have charged. Following a review of this case, we concluded that there was insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.”
But, Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK, says the charges could make a return appearance if any evidence turns up in corut against her that could lead to a conviction. That could lead to police reopening the case.
“The Crown Prosecution Service has written to the Justice’s Chief Executive under section 23 of the Prosecution of Offences Act. The effect of the correspondence is that there will be no court hearing on 2 February.”
“Although the CPS has indicated it would drop the charges, it made it clear that they could be reinstated,” he added.
“This leaves Isabel in significant legal uncertainty and her priority is to obtain legal clarity on what, if any, liability she may incur in the future based on the charges laid against her,” said Igunnubole.
The censorship zone measure introduced by Birmingham authorities criminalises individuals percieved to be “engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval” in relation to abortion, including through “verbal or written means, prayer or counselling…”.
Vaughan-Spruce had stood near the abortion facility whilst it was closed on three occasions, in which she says she “might” have been praying.
When shown pictures of herself outside the abortion facility by police, Vaughan-Spruce was questioned as to whether she was praying in the photos. She said she could not answer – some of the time she had spent praying, other times she had been distracted and thought about other things, such as her lunch. She maintains that both of these thoughts were equally peaceful and imperceptible and that neither should be criminalised.
“Isabel’s experience should be deeply concerning to all those who believe that our hard-fought fundamental rights are worth protecting. It is truly astonishing that the law has granted local authorities such wide and unaccountable discretion, that now even thoughts deemed “wrong” can lead to a humiliating arrest and a criminal charge,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK, the legal organisation supporting Vaughan-Spruce.
“A mature democracy should be able to differentiate between criminal conduct and the peaceful exercise of constitutionally protected rights. Isabel, a woman of good character, and who has tirelessly served her community by providing charitable assistance to vulnerable women and children, has been treated no better than a violent criminal. The recent increase in buffer zone legislation and orders is a watershed moment in our country. We must ask ourselves whether we are a genuinely democratic country committed to protecting the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of speech. We are at serious risk of mindlessly sleepwalking into a society that accepts, normalises, and even promotes the “tyranny of the majority,” he continued.
As part of her conditions for bail, Vaughan-Spruce was told that she should not contact a local Catholic priest who was also involved in pro-life work – a condition that was later dropped.
Police also imposed restrictions, as part of her bail, on Vaughan-Spruce engaging in public prayer beyond the PSPO area, stating that this was necessary to prevent further offences.
Vaughan-Spruce is the Director of the UK March for Life and has volunteered for many years in support of women in crisis pregnancies.
“I have devoted much of my life to supporting women in crisis pregnancies with everything that they need to make an empowered choice for motherhood. I am also involved in supporting women who have had abortions and are struggling with the consequences of it. I’ve grown close to many of the women I’ve been able to support over the years, and it breaks my heart to know that so many more go through this every day,” explains Vaughan-Spruce.
“My faith is a central part of who I am, so sometimes I’ll stand or walk near an abortion facility and pray about this issue. This is something I’ve done pretty much every week for around the last 20 years of my life. I pray for my friends who have experienced abortion, and for the women who are thinking about going through it themselves,” she continued.
Her arrest follows another recent incident in Bournemouth where a woman was told to leave by local authorities for praying, even outside of the local censorship zone. Find out more.
Last year, a grandmother from Liverpool successfully overturned her charge on human rights grounds after she was arrested and fined for praying silently near an abortion facility on a walk during lockdown. Find out more.
In Westminster, parliamentarians are considering legislation to introduce censorship zones in England and Wales. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill, currently under parliamentary debate, would prohibit pro-life volunteers from “influencing”, “advising”, “persuading”, “informing”, “occupying space” or even “expressing opinion” within the vicinity of an abortion facility.
Those who breach the rules could face up to two years in prison.
A 2018 government review into the work of pro-life volunteers outside of abortion facilities found that instances of harassment are rare, and police already have powers to prosecute individuals engaging in such activities. The most common activities of pro-life groups were found to be quiet or silent prayer, or offering leaflets about charitable support available to women who would like to consider alternative options to abortion.
At 150m, the national censorship zones would be larger than a football pitch (115m). In the equivalent space, if one goalkeeper were to pray for the other goalkeeper – regardless of impact or noticeability – that would be an offence.
The censorial provisions of the parliamentary bill drew substantive criticism from members of the House of Lords, including Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Beith, who deemed the clause “the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any UK legislation.” Lord Farmer called the clause “fundamentally flawed”, and asked, “When one walks past, one sees that vigils are often small groups of harmless, mainly female, pensioners. Why should they be banned and silenced?”
The Clause has caused great controversy following a statement released from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State shortly after MPs voted to include it, admitting that the clause “could not be said to be compliant” with Convention rights as protected in the European Court of Human Rights.
Baroness Claire Fox, who advocates for abortion, pointed out that “creating prohibitions on protest on an issue-by-issue basis is not an appropriate way to make law. It sets a precedent that will inevitably lead to attempts to prevent speech, expression, information sharing, assembly or the holding of protected beliefs around other sites or in relation to other controversial or unpopular causes.”
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