A judge in Birmingham has acquitted a Catholic priest and a pregnancy counsellor of so-called “thought crimes” after police charged the pair in connection with praying outside an abortion clinic.
District Judge David Wain dismissed the case against Fr Sean Gough, 33, an assistant priest in Wolverhampton and Staffordshire, and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, 45, of Malvern, Worcestershire, at a hearing at Birmingham Magistrates Court.
The pair were charged in December of violating a 150-metre Public Spaces Protection Order imposed around a British Pregnancy Advisory Services facility in the Kings Norton area by Birmingham City Council a month earlier.
Miss Vaughan Spruce was arrested, searched, detained and charged after she admitted to three police officers that she “might be” praying in her head when she was stood outside the clinic at a time when it was closed.
Fr Gough was charged after held up a placard outside the clinic, also closed at the time, which read: “Praying for Freedom of Speech.”
The Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges against the pair in January but they sought a court verdict on whether their behaviour was criminal.
In court, CPS prosecutor Ekene Pruce declined to offer evidence against either Miss Vaughan-Spruce or Fr Gough.
Judge Wain said: “Because the prosecution decided to offer no evidence the matter is brought to an end. That brings proceedings to an end.”
He told Fr Gough: “You are free to go.”
Afterwards, Miss 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 I 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 traumatised 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.
“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,” she 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.
“We must stand firm against this and ensure that these most fundamental freedoms are protected and that all our laws reflect this.
“I was arrested for my prayers because of a disproportionate and far reaching censorship zone … Nobody should be criminalised for offering help. Nobody should be criminalised for their prayers. Nobody should be criminalised for their thoughts.”
Fr Gough similarly expressed relief at having been cleared of all charges and said afterwards that “whatever your views are on abortion we can all agree that a democratic country cannot be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes”.
“I pray every day, everywhere I go. Prayer can never be a crime,” he added.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, a charity which has supported the pair, said the court case was “of great cultural significance”.
He said: “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.”
He said: Their case may have closed today, but it should be marked in this conversation as a cautionary tale. In the UK, 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.”
The House of Lords last month voted in favour of a national roll out of censorship zones around all abortion clinics throughout England and Wales.
Following a Report Stage debate, 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 offence 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 150 metres of an abortion clinic.
They also rejected an amendment to order a Home Office review of evidence to justify the imposition of such Draconian legislation.
The Government has granted a free vote on censorship vote hijacking amendments to the Bill, which will soon return to the House of Commons.
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- UK’s Thought Police Arrest Woman for Silently Praying Near Abortion Clinic