Priest faces legal uncertainty after praying outside closed abortion clinic
A Catholic priest is pursuing a clear verdict as he potentially faces charges for praying silently outside a closed abortion clinic, holding a sign calling for free speech and displaying a pro-life bumper sticker on his car, his legal team says.
The legal nonprofit ADF UK announced in a statement Thursday that Father Sean Gough, a Catholic priest based in Birmingham, England, had faced charges of "intimidating service-users" of an abortion clinic covered by a Public Spaces Protection Order.
The Crown Prosecution Service ultimately dropped the charges but informed Gough that the charges could re-materialize at any point in the future. This led Gough to "pursue a clear verdict on his charges in court in order to clear his name."
"Though charges were dropped after several weeks due to 'insufficient evidence,' he has been warned that further evidence relating to the charges may soon be forthcoming, implying the entire grueling process could soon restart from the beginning," ADF UK Legal Counsel Jeremiah Igunnubole said in a statement.
The protection order prohibits people from "protesting, namely engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means" in the area surrounding the BPAS Roberts Clinic.
Gough held a sign reading "praying for free speech" in the vicinity of the abortion clinic, which was closed at the time. He also faced a charge for parking his car, with a bumper sticker proclaiming "unborn lives matter," near the abortion facility.
While police officers informed the priest that they did not believe he did anything wrong, they pressed charges after interrogating him at the police station.
"I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for people around me," Gough said in a statement. "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 places where we know that many women have benefitted from peaceful offers of help about services available."
Igunnubole said Gough's prosecution shows how "the process in and of itself has become the punishment" for pro-life activists who pray near abortion clinics and face "onerous legal battles simply for holding peaceful views in certain public spaces, against the will of authorities." He said the legal process creates "a chilling effect on freedom of expression."
Igunnubole maintained that "nobody should be criminalized for peaceful activities like praying for the state of free speech in our country, or having a bumper sticker on their car that expresses a belief that 'unborn lives matter.'"
"Father Sean's years of service to women in crisis pregnancies are testimony to the good of his character and intention," he added.
A large part of Gough's ministry is working for Rachel's Vineyard, a charity that supports hundreds of women and men in the U.K. wounded by abortion.
"I don't judge or condemn those who've had abortions — but volunteer my time to work for their healing," he said.
For Gough, it's not just the Catholic Church's teachings that inform his belief in the sanctity of life.
"My mom made a bold choice for life when I was a baby. I was conceived in the context of severe violence, and she found the grace and the strength to fight for us both," Gough said. "So many people thought she should abort me, but by the grace of God, she didn't."
Gough's case mirrors that of pro-life activist Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, who was also arrested in Birmingham for a similar breach of the Public Safety Protection Order that bars demonstrations outside the BPAS Robert Clinic. Like Gough, she had charges dropped but learned that the case against her "may well start again" if prosecutors uncover additional evidence against her.
Vaughan-Spruce is also pursuing a clear verdict, hoping that such a decision would set a precedent and provide a concrete "answer as to whether it's still lawful to pray silently in our own heads." ADF UK announced Friday that a court date for Vaughan-Spruce has been set for Feb. 16.
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: email@example.com