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UK priest, volunteer acquitted of 'praying' outside abortion clinic

The two were prosecuted for harassment of clients outside a closed British Pregnancy Advisory Services abortion facility
Father Sean Gough, a priest of the Archdioceses of Birmingham, England, and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, are pictured in a Feb. 16, 2023, photo

Father Sean Gough, a priest of the Archdioceses of Birmingham, England, and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, are pictured in a Feb. 16, 2023, photo. (Photo: nwcatholic.org)

Published: February 17, 2023 04:40 AM GMT
Updated: February 17, 2023 04:49 AM GMT

A court has acquitted a Catholic priest and a pregnancy counselor of crimes in connection with the "harassment of abortion clinic clients."

District Judge David Wain Feb. 16 dismissed charges against Father Sean Gough and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, in a matter of seconds, in a hearing at Birmingham Magistrates Court.

Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK was arrested, searched, detained and charged in December after she was approached by three officers outside a closed British Pregnancy Advisory Services abortion facility and admitted to them that she "might be" praying in her head.

Father Gough, a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, was charged the same month after he subsequently held up a placard outside the clinic, also closed at the time, which read: "Praying for Free Speech."

"Nobody should be criminalized for offering help. Nobody should be criminalized for their prayers. Nobody should be criminalized for their thoughts," Vaughan-Spruce said in front of the court after being acquitted.

Father Gough similarly expressed relief at having been cleared of all charges and said afterward that "whatever your views are on abortion we can all agree that a democratic country cannot be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes."

In November, Birmingham City Council imposed a Public Spaces Protection Order prohibiting any activity within 492 feet (150 meters) of the clinic which might be aimed at influencing or harassing clients.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) dropped the charges against Father Gough and Vaughan-Spruce in January, but they decided to exercise their legal right for a court verdict on whether their behavior had been criminal.

In court Feb. 16, the CPS offered no evidence against either of them.

Wain said: "Because the prosecution decided to offer no evidence the matter is brought to an end. That brings proceedings to an end … you are free to go."

Speaking outside the court, Vaughan-Spruce said: "I’m glad I've been completely vindicated of any wrongdoing but I should never have been arrested and treated like a criminal simply for silently praying on a public street."

After being arrested she was asked by the police "what I was silently praying for."

"I told them I was praying for people like my friend Amy, who was raped and became pregnant and was pressured into having an abortion which she deeply regretted, for people like Natalia, who took the abortion pills then passed her baby at home and saw that child down the toilet, which deeply traumatized her, for people like Kirsty, who also passed her child at home, in her own bed and on lifting up the covers saw what she described as being like a scene from a horror movie," she said.

"This is where the true crime exists -- women being sold the lie that abortion will solve their difficulties in pregnancy, that this is being endorsed by the government and that attempts to offer women alternatives are being described as either criminal or anti-social," Vaughan-Spruce said.

"What is profoundly anti-social is that it is still legal to deprive certain human beings of their most basic freedom, the freedom to live and that steps are now being taken to censor freedom of speech, freedom to offer help, freedom to pray and even freedom to think," she continued.

Father Gough said, "I pray every day, everywhere I go. Prayer can never be a crime."

Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) UK, an advocacy group which has supported the pair, said the court case was "of great cultural significance."

"It's a great moment to celebrate the vindication of Father Sean and Isabel. But our Parliament is considering rolling out censorial legislation, which could lead to more situations where people's thoughts are on trial."

In January, the House of Lords, Britain’s second political chamber, voted for the national roll out of buffer zones around all abortion centers.

They supported Amendment 45 to the Public Order Bill, tabled by Conservative peer Baroness Sugg of Coldharbour, to make it a crime to influence "any person’s decision to access, provide or facilitate the provision of abortion services."

It also makes it a criminal offense to cause "harassment, alarm or distress to any person in connection with a decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services" within 492 feet of an abortion clinic.

Baroness Elizabeth Sugg said in the debate that "we are seeing these zones introduced in France, Spain, Canada, Australia, Northern Ireland and soon in Scotland as well. It is really important that we give women in England and Wales the same protection that women are getting in those jurisdictions."

Speaking about Vaughan-Spruce and Father Gough, Igunnubole said: "Their case may have closed today, but it should be marked in this conversation as a cautionary tale. In the U.K., freedom of thought, prayer, offers of help and peaceful conversation are not illegal, and we call on Parliament to reject the creation of more censorship zones through vaguely worded public order legislation."

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