A Catholic priest, found not guilty after being charged for praying within an abortion censorship zone in Birmingham, has blasted the process which led to his arrest and declared that ‘a democratic country cannot be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes.’
Father Sean Gough and charity volunteer Isabel Vaughan-Spruce were cleared of all charges in a ruling handed down by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court on Thursday 16th February in a landmark case.
Prosecutor Ekene Pruce told the hearing at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court that the CPS had dropped four charges of failing to comply with a PSPO brought against Fr Gough and Ms. Vaughan-Spruce.
Father Sean was charged for praying within a censorship zone in Birmingham and holding a sign reading “praying for free speech”. A further charge was added, related to his car, which for some time has had on it a small “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker, within the same area.
Reacting to the ruling, Father Sean said: “I’m pleased that I’ve been cleared of all charges today and to have cleared my name.
“I stand by my beliefs – unborn lives do matter. But whatever your views are on abortion, we can all agree that a democratic country cannot be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes.”
Father Sean, a priest from St Peter and St Paul Catholic Church, Wolverhampton, in the archdiocese of Birmingham, was charged with “intimidating service-users” of the abortion facility in Kings Norton, Birmingham-even though the abortion facility was closed at the time. He spoke of the dangers of introducing censorship zones nationwide.
“If the government imposes censorship zones around every abortion facility in the country, as they are considering doing with the Public Order Bill currently under discussion, who knows how many more people will stand trial, even face prison, for offering help, or for praying in their mind?” he said.
In December, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was charged with “protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users,”-even though, like Father Sean, the abortion facility was closed.
She was seen in a viral video being searched and arrested by three police officers after saying that she “might be” praying inside her head.
The area surrounding the facility nearby which she prayed 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”.
Speaking after the verdict this morning, Vaughan-Spruce spoke out against the ‘anti-social’ attempts to curb ‘freedom of speech.’
“I’m glad I’ve been vindicated of any wrongdoing. But I should never have been arrested for my thoughts and treated like a criminal simply for silently praying on a public street,” she said.
“When it comes to censorship zones, peaceful prayer and attempts to offer help to women in crisis pregnancies are now being described as either “criminal” or “anti-social”. But what is profoundly anti-social are the steps now being taken to censor freedom of speech, freedom to offer help, freedom to pray and even freedom to think.”
The issue has come to the fore as the House of Commons will soon debate the rollout of censorship zones across the country. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill would criminalise any form of “influencing” outside of abortion facilities, which would include prayer, with a potential prison sentence of up to two years.
Fr Sean urged the Government to ‘look into the overwhelming positive work that pro-life groups do to support vulnerable women at their point of need, before censoring the streets of the UK and allowing good people to be criminalised for acts of love.’
His comments follow those of Bishop John Sherrington from the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, who recently spoke out against Clause 9.
“Recent police actions have further exacerbated the concerns of Catholic bishops, and many others, regarding the broad legislative proposal of Clause 9 and its implications for freedom of religion, belief, expression, and association,” he said.
Both Isabel and Fr Sean were supported by faith-based charity ADF UK, which seeks to protect and promote fundamental freedoms.
Reflecting upon today’s verdict, ADF UK’s Jeremiah Igunnubole welcomed the ruling as a moment of ‘great cultural significance’-but warned that it may be ‘a cautionary tale.’
“It’s great that (Father Sean and Isabel) have found justice, although with such gruelling legal battles, the process is often the punishment. Their case may have closed today, but it should be marked in this conversation as a cautionary tale.”
Speaking outside the court, Mr Igunnubole said that ‘national censorship zones must be rejected.’
Picture: Simon Caldwell