Father Gough: ‘I Was Conceived in the Context of Violence, and My Mother Chose Life for Me’

U.K. priest’s pro-life witness is personal.

‘I was born into circumstances where it was impossible to take the gift of my life for granted,’ says Father Sean Gough.
‘I was born into circumstances where it was impossible to take the gift of my life for granted,’ says Father Sean Gough. (photo: Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF UK))

LONDON — On Feb.16, two British Catholics were acquitted of all charges relating to praying outside an abortion facility in the English city of Birmingham. 

One of the two acquitted was a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, Father Sean Gough.

The priest’s appearance in a criminal court was on account of the relatively new law, Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which creates Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO). According to the local government’s website, a PSPO is: “to tackle anti-social behaviour” and aimed “at ensuring public spaces can be enjoyed free from anti-social behaviour.” 

These orders have been used to silence pro-life witness outside of British abortion facilities.

On Feb. 9, Father Gough stood near an abortion facility on Station Road in the Kings Norton area of Birmingham. He held a sign that read: “Praying for Free Speech.” Soon after, the priest was confronted by police officers because, in their view, he appeared to be flouting the PSPO. Eventually, Father Gough was interviewed at a police station. Officers questioned him about his actions and sign and then charged him with the criminal offense of “intimidating service users” of the abortion facility. In addition, it was also made clear by police that the priest faced a second charge relating to a sticker on his parked car that read: “Unborn lives matter.”

As it transpires, due to “insufficient evidence,” charges were not proceeded with against Father Gough. However, the prosecuting authority, the Crown Prosecution Service — the state prosecutors in England and Wales — reserved the right to reinstate charges if fresh evidence came to light. A further court hearing was necessary, therefore, to ensure that no further charges could be brought in these matters. At the court hearing at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court on Feb. 16, the priest was represented by legal counsel from the faith-based law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF UK). At the end of that hearing, all charges were dropped against Father Gough.

Whether such a case should ever have been brought in the first place remains controversial. After the hearing, Father Gough’s legal counsel, ADF UK’s Jeremiah Igunnubole, noted that the British 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 Father Sean had stood in the same spot thinking different thoughts, he likely wouldn’t have been arrested.” Igunnubole added in a statement following the court hearing: “Today’s court case is of great cultural significance. This isn’t 1984, but 2023 — nobody should be criminalized for their thoughts, for their prayers, for peaceful expression on a public street.”

So who is the priest at the center of this? 

“I’m from Walsall in the [English] West Midlands,” Father Gough told the Register. “I was brought up in a Catholic family, but only at about the age of 10 or so did I start to pray. When I started to pray, my relationship with God started to grow; my awareness that God might be calling me to serve him as a priest appeared, too. … At the age of 23, I decided to apply for seminary, even though I wasn’t sure God wanted me to be a priest. Quite quickly after joining seminary, I realized it was the right path, especially through seeing firsthand the difference that priestly ministry makes to people’s lives.”

A Catholic priest who is pro-life is as expected. For Father Gough, however, the issue of abortion is a personal one. “I was conceived in the context of violence, and my mother chose life for me,” he explained. “I was born into circumstances where it was impossible to take the gift of my life for granted.” 

This knowledge has inspired him to dedicate much of his priestly ministry “to supporting women in difficult circumstances, especially expectant mothers. Through my work with Rachel’s Vineyard, a ministry that supports women and men impacted by abortion trauma and grief, I have been able to see firsthand that there is hurt and pain to be found in abortion — [but also] hope and healing after it.” 

“[I play a] small part in these women and men’s lives,” he said, and it is this that motivates “[me] to stay close to the pro-life cause, and makes the issue hugely personal for me.”

So how did he feel when stopped by police for praying on an English street? “I was threatened with arrest, interrogated by the police under caution, and criminally charged for silent prayer — which, in and of itself, for a priest in today’s world, is a bizarre and dystopian occurrence,” Father Gough observed. 

“I very much had the feeling that this is what I have been called to stand up for in this moment: for free speech and for the fundamental human right to life of all people, born and unborn, resting firmly on my beliefs, rooted in my Catholic faith.” 

He then added, “I felt peace throughout this process.” 

That said, it is clear that the episode was a disquieting one for him, and the implications for free speech on the issue of abortion across the United Kingdom are troubling for everyone. 

“There is something clearly Orwellian that does not sit right about coming under legal fire for silently praying,” he said.

“The acquittal that I received from the court has confirmed that prayer can never be a crime, but as we move forward with potentially legalizing censorship zones nationwide, this is really just the start of this issue.”

Father Gough went on to make the telling observation that, in his view, the slightly absurd nature of his prosecution is a deliberate tactic. He continued: “This [case] was in the system for roughly two and a half months. We can’t lose sight of the fact of how absurdly onerous this is for having not committed any crime in the first place. The process itself has become the punishment when it comes to [contravening] government-sanctioned censorship.”

How did those two and a half months feel for the priest while he was facing a potential criminal conviction? “The last few weeks have been difficult,” admitted Father Gough. “Nobody should be criminalized for the thoughts they’re having or for their prayers, and yet I was treated like a criminal for this. Even though the charges were eventually dropped, it’s horrible to have to defend yourself to the police and the courts for nothing more than praying silently on a public street.” 

Grateful for the support he received from people across the world, his hope is that the British Parliament will not extend PSPOs nationally. Speaking to the Register, Lois McLatchie, ADF International communications officer, said: “Unfortunately, Father Gough’s case points to more such situations happening as our Parliament considers rolling censorship zones out nationwide.” She added that a provision within the proposed Public Order Bill would forbid any form of “influencing” outside of abortion facilities. “This vaguely worded prohibition could not only result in the U.K.’s first piece of ‘thoughtcrime’ legislation, by banning silent prayer — it could also result in a ban on peaceful and consensual conversations,” she explained, “Censorship zones aren’t pro-choice — they’re no-choice. They remove viable options from women facing crisis pregnancies.”

“Every person has the right to think, pray and act peacefully in accordance with their convictions on the public street,” said Father Gough. 

“My overarching hope is that my story helps contribute to our recognition that a free society has no business censoring peaceful thought or expression, and to pave the way for a world in which every life is protected, and every woman and her family is supported in welcoming life into this world.”

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