A Catholic priest has accused the Government of “censoring the streets of the UK” and attempting to criminalise “silent prayer” after being cleared of charges claiming he intimidated service users near an abortion clinic.
Father Sean Gough also urged MPs to look into the “overwhelmingly positive” work of pro-life groups after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) told a court it had discontinued a prosecution alleging he had breached a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO).
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 charity volunteer Isabel Vaughan-Spruce.
During brief separate hearings on Thursday, Ms Pruce said both cases had been judged not to meet the “full code test” for prosecutors – which assesses whether prosecutions are in the public interest and if there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.
Asked by District Judge David Wain why the full code test had not been met, Ms Pruce replied: “I would not be able to comment on that.”
In a statement, Fr Gough, 33, and Ms Vaughan-Spruce, 45, criticised the decision to charge them for “silently praying” and “praying for free speech”, saying they had been put “on trial for praying in an abortion facility censorship zone”.
Ms Vaughan-Spruce, from Malvern, Worcestershire, and Fr Gough, of the St Peter and St Paul Catholic Church in Wolverhampton, were both accused of “protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users” of a Birmingham clinic.
Reacting outside court after prosecutors offered no evidence and the charges were dropped, Fr Gough said: “Everyone has the right to pray in their mind.
“I’m pleased that I’ve been cleared of all the charges today and have cleared my name.
“It’s wrong for authorities to censor parts of the street from prayer – even silent prayer – and from peacefully having conversations and sharing information that could be of great help to women who want an alternative choice to abortion.
“I was charged for praying for freedom of speech and for an old bumper sticker on my car that read ‘unborn lives matter’.
“Whatever your views are on abortion, we should be able to agree that in a democratic country we should not be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes.”
After thanking around 20 people who attended court to support him, Fr Gough added: “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 are going to stand trial, how many people are going to be put in prison for offering help, for praying in their mind?
“I call on the government to look into the overwhelmingly positive work that the vast majority of 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.”
Speaking before Fr Gough, Ms Vaughan-Spruce told reporters she had been “arrested and criminalised simply for my private thoughts on a public street”.
She added: “Those who are trying to offer alternatives are being branded as criminals and told that their behaviour is anti-social.
“What is profoundly anti-social is that in 2023 there are still certain members of our society who are having their most fundamental rights taken from them – the right to life itself.
“Other freedoms are now being censored. The freedom to offer help, the freedom to speak, the freedom to pray, even the freedom to think.”
“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.
“We all stand firmly against harassment on public streets. Harassment is already illegal.
“A government review in 2018 found that harassment near abortion facilities is rare, and peaceful prayer and offers of charitable help were the most common activities there.
“The government concluded at that point that censorship zones would be disproportionate. No further reviews have since been conducted. What has now changed?”