Priest and churchgoer charged for ‘praying’ outside abortion clinic found not guilty

Priest and churchgoer charged for ‘praying’ outside abortion clinic found not guilty

A priest and a churchgoer who were charged for ‘silently praying’ near an abortion clinic have been acquitted of all charges. 

Father Sean Gough and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce were both charged of breaking a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) covering the surroundings of an abortion clinic in Birmingham. 

The censorship zone, also known as “buffer zone”, prohibits any activity which might be considered a “protest” outside abortion clinics as well as anything which might intimidate anyone requesting the services.

Several cities in England have locally enforced this measure, including Bournemouth and London but the government is considering to roll out the measure nationwide.  

But on Thursday, both Fr Sean and Vaughan-Spruce were found not guilty with prosecutor Ekene Pruce saying the CPS had dropped all charges against the pair. 

Pruce also said both cases had been found not to pass the “full code test” for prosecutors, a measure which determines whether there’s enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. 

Speaking to Premier as he left the court on Thursday, Father Sean said that while he welcomes the ruling, he believes it is “an opportunity” for the government to “revaluate” their direction of travel. 

“They can see how sometimes perhaps well intentioned legislation can be misapplied, it can be abused, and that can be overreach. We need to think very, very carefully, before we start to undermine these fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the freedom to have thoughts in your own head.”

As part of the Public Order Bill, the House of Commons will, in the coming weeks, debate whether to introduce buffer zones across the country following a vote by MPs last November in favour of the measure. 

Reacting to the verdict, Vaughan-Spruce said she was pleased to have “cleared” her name but shared Fr Sean’s worry.

“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? 

“I call on 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.”

Both Father Sean and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce were supported by religious freedom charity ADF International. 

Its legal counsel Jeremiah Igunnubole said: “Today’s court case is of great cultural significance. This isn’t 1984, but 2023 – nobody should be criminalised for their thoughts, for their prayers, for peaceful expression on a public street. 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. Let’s be clear – if Isabel or Fr Sean had been stood in the same spot thinking different thoughts, they likely wouldn’t have been arrested.”