National Catholic Register


The Trial of Activists’ Hearts

BY John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe

May 31-June 6, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/31/98 at 1:00 AM


The jury reached a guilty verdict in the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) case of National Organization for Women (NOW) v. Scheidler, et al, extending the federal statute against racketeering to cover pro-life nonviolent action. Until the verdict is reversed on appeal, Joe Scheidler and co-defendants Andy Scholberg and Tim Murphy are guilty of racketeering, a pattern of criminal activity designed to hurt a business.

The trial of activists'hearts is still going on however — and there is no verdict yet. NOW did not pursue Scheidler in order to collect blood from that turnip, but to scare away all activists. They got their court order to collect turnip juice; will they succeed in frightening pro-lifers?

Scheidler is not running scared, and intends to be more active than ever.

“These things get people going,” he stated. “The only Catholic thing to do is go save these children.”

” Like Mary and John at the foot of the cross, we have to be there. We should go to these killing centers, to pray and counsel. We have to be nonviolent and prayerful, and go out there with a new determination to convert them. That's what Christ told us to do.”

He noted that the federal-court trial and decision had galvanized people, including many in the Catholic Church. The vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago spent a day at the trial, waiting to testify. Also, Scheidler said, “I got a letter from Archbishop [Francis] George of Chicago, and he said he remembers me at Mass every day.”

There are many things that can be done outside abortion clinics that can save lives but are unlikely — no guarantees — to lead to arrest. Karen Black and Msgr. Philip Reilly offer models for effective lifesaving ministry.

Karen Black, whose sidewalk counseling ministry supported by prayer has saved thousands of babies and mothers in Atlanta, was not discouraged by the ruling. She said, “We need more than ever to go forward. It's a spiritual battle. The Lord said, ‘Assault the gates of Hell.’ You can't do that by running away. This looks like a defeat, but we don't know what the Lord has in mind. The cross looked like a defeat, and it was the greatest victory ever. And in Los Angeles, when the police came after rescuers with nunchakus [martial arts devices used to inflict severe pain], more people came out.”

She does not foresee any changes in her work because of the ruling in Chicago. Her organization, Women-4-Women, has scheduled another training seminar in which 35-40 people signed up — a small increase over past seminars.

Msgr. Reilly is also very upbeat about his work with the Helpers of God's Precious Infants. This ministry, which started on Long Island, has spread around the world. Msgr. Reilly points out that the work of changing hearts in order to save lives is God's work, not ours. So he teaches people to go to the site of the killing, and then simply to pray for hours, in support of trained sidewalk counselors. Their work has also saved babies and women by the thousands. Within the United States, more than 50 bishops and three cardinals have participated in prayer at the sites of the killing.

“Sometimes we skip past our First Amendment rights and get into a confrontation,” said Msgr. Reilly, who has participated in rescues in the past, “but if we use our rights to free speech, praying and talking to mothers, we can get incredible results. This is the most effective thing we can do now.”

Karen Black and Msgr. Reilly clearly have shown that when people depend on the Lord for their strength and inspiration, and go to the sites of the killing to speak to mothers, they can save lives. In fact, the challenge of finding ways to pray and speak at abortion sites may be just starting; there may be many new avenues to explore. For example, one of the great blessings of the rescue movement was that Catholics and Protestants learned to pray together. That lesson can be deepened in many ways.

The NOW v. Scheidler verdict has been widely regarded as potentially limiting First Amendment rights of speech and assembly, but those in the pro-life movement view the decision as an attack on their moral beliefs.

Unifying Music and Psalms

One of the challenges that all sidewalk counselors face is trying to convey an emotional message clearly, usually in just a few seconds, and sometimes across a parking lot — but without shouting. The task is daunting, but music does that all the time. Pro-lifers have talked for years about the need to put the strength of the Church on streets, but have not focused on taking church choirs to abortion sites. There is no good reason for this failure; it is more an oversight than a deliberate decision.

It is not as if no one else has ever put Christian music on the streets. The Salvation Army delights people every Christmas, in malls everywhere. Christians should not hesitate to put the best music on the streets near abortion sites, sung with skill as well as love. The music they sing need not be specifically pro-life; in fact, it is likely to be more effective if they sing music that abortion-bound women remember from their childhood — music from a happier time, that touches the deepest part of the heart because it is simple praise of God.

Across the nation, Catholics and Protestants are still separating when Catholics want to pray the rosary. That renewed division may not be necessary. In the rosary, Catholics generally are doing three things, two of which can be shared. The rosary includes prayers of petition — specific intentions that are mentioned at the beginning of the rosary or at the beginning of each decade. The petitions are not divisive.

The rosary includes, obviously, prayers addressed to Mary. Not all Christians accept that. But the rosary also includes meditation of specific events in the life of the Lord and the Church, and those meditations can certainly be shared. If Protestants sing hymns about the Annunciation while Catholics recite that decade, they can all stay together in prayer. Students at a weekend organized by Collegians Activated to Liberate Life (CALL) tried it, and found that the music helped the Catholics focus on the meditations.

Similarly, the Psalms are a largely unexplored source of unity. A person with a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary will certainly be pleased to use the prayers she knew and loved: the Psalms. They are at the core of Christian prayer, and used by Catholics around the world. So Catholics can pray the Psalms without any sense that they are compromising their faith.

Using the Psalms moves Christians past one of the differences in style that has plagued activists trying to achieve the unity for which Christ prayed. More often than not, Catholics read prayers out of books — a practice that is frequently a distraction and occasionally a scandal to Christians who are accustomed to spontaneous prayers from the heart. When one reads the Psalms, however, this problem disappears. Protestants who are baffled when Catholics read prayers written by Thomas Aquinas or Francis of Assisi are always pleased to listen to the prayers written by King David.

There are enough Psalms to keep a group of Christians together in prayer for an entire morning at an abortion site. Further, every Christian tradition has a rich collection of musical settings for the Psalms.

A Return to Rescue

The ruling in Chicago makes it possible for wealthy organizations to sue anyone involved in civil disobedience against them. The Supreme Court ruled that RICO applies even if the defendants are not profiting in any way from their attacks on an industry or business. In Chicago, the court ruled that the intentions of the activists were not relevant. So a pattern of criminal activity — two or more events leading to arrest and conviction — that damages a business can be considered racketeering.

In Scheidler's renewed call for action that is nonviolent and prayerful, he offered the opinion that rescues are dead — wiped out by federal legislation.

“They served for a time, and they activated many new people,” said Scheidler. “But now, people think they can be more effective doing other things.”

That opinion is widely held, but not universally. Will Goodman and Chris McKenna, two pro-life activists from Madison, Wis., examined the new, high cost. After seven months of preparation in prayer and study, they conducted a rescue on Good Friday, placing themselves quietly at the door of an abortion site and refusing to move away. They were arrested quickly, and were expected to be in jail until their trial. Early on Easter Sunday morning, however, they were released without explanation.

Their trial is still pending, and they have not yet heard whether they will be charged with violating the federal FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) law, which carries dramatic penalties. They do not have any illusions about the impact of their sacrifice, but they pray for a renewal of a penitent rescue movement, acting quietly, without any bombast.

While Scheidler was on trial, Rev. Flip Benham was sitting in jail in Lynchburg, Va. (Benham's organization, Operation Rescue National, was a co-defendant in the RICO trial.) Benham had been arrested for trespassing at a local high school, convicted, and sentenced to a year in jail, six months suspended. On the day he was at the high school, the police did not arrest him. In fact, the police testified that Benham was a gentleman — at all times cooperative. After he left town though, the city convened a grand jury to indict him for a misdemeanor.

Asked whether pro-lifers can find ways to save children and women without risking lawsuits, Benham noted that “the point of the suits is not to get any money from us; we don't have any. The point of the trial in Chicago was to terrorize any Christians who live their theology in the streets. The cost of action is rising, and the perimeter is being moved farther and farther away from the battle. The point was to drive Christians back into the ghetto of their church buildings. Christianity is OK there, for now.”

Scheidler is pleased that pro-lifers are searching for avenues to protect children and women without being sued for racketeering, but offers a word of caution: A great deal of the testimony against him was fabricated. There were stories about things he or his co-defendants did when, in fact, they were hundreds of miles away. Pro-lifers cannot protect themselves from lies by being more cautious.

The only way to avoid suits completely is to give up completely and join the other side. It is always a little risky standing up for people who are scheduled to die. Just ask St. Peter.

John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, a veteran prolife researcher, author, and speaker, is director of public policy for American Life League.