Priest charged after praying silently in abortion clinic buffer zone
Priest charged after praying silently in abortion clinic buffer zone[photo1]
A Catholic priest has been criminally charged after allegedly breaching an abortion clinic buffer zone by praying silently.
Father Sean Gough stood silently while holding a "praying for free speech" sign within the buffer zone around the Birmingham clinic, which was closed at the time. =
The Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) governing the zone prohibits prayer, the distribution of information about help, and any activities deemed to be a "protest".
Fr Gough, who works with Rachel's Vineyard, an organisation helping women heal from the trauma of abortion, was questioned by police and charged with "intimidating service-users" .
He received a further charge for parking his car with a bumper sticker saying "unborn lives matter" within the same zone.
ADF UK, which is providing legal support, said that the charges were later dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) but Fr Gough was also told that they could be reinstated.
"I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray?" he said.
"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."
In December, pro-life volunteer Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested and charged after telling police that she might have been praying silently inside the buffer zone.
Like Fr Gough, the CPS subsequently dropped the charges while informing her that they may be reinstated if further evidence emerges.
ADF UK is assisting Fr Gough and Ms Vaughan-Spruce in pursuing a clear verdict on their charges in court.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, said that such charges were having a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression in the UK.
"The process in and of itself has become the punishment for people like Father Sean, who face onerous legal battles simply for holding peaceful views in certain public spaces, against the will of authorities," he said.
"Nobody should be criminalised for peaceful activities like praying for the state of free speech in our country, or having a simple bumper sticker on their car that expresses a belief that 'unborn lives matter'.
"This case demonstrates the far-reaching and illiberal consequences of so-called 'buffer zones'. Father Sean's years of service to women in crisis pregnancies are testimony to the good of his character and intention."
He added, "ADF UK remains committed to supporting Father Sean's pursuit of a verdict. No one should fear prosecution for expressing peaceful beliefs, let alone on a small bumper sticker, nor through a sign that simply reads 'praying for free speech'."