Fr. Sean Gough has become one of the most recent individuals to highlight the existence of abortion “censorship zones” in England.
Late last year, the priest entered an area of the city of Birmingham near an abortion facility covered by a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO).
The order, introduced in September 2022, prohibits “protesting” against “abortion services,” including by “graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counseling.”
Fr. Gough, who was ordained in September 2020 and serves as an assistant priest in England’s Birmingham archdiocese, stood near the facility — which was closed at the time — holding a sign that read “Praying for freedom of speech.”
Police initially told the 33-year-old that he did not appear to be breaking the rules. But later, he was invited for an interview at a police station, questioned, and criminally charged with “intimidating service users.” He also faced another charge relating to parking his car, which bore an “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker, within the zone.
The charges have since been dropped, but he has been told they could be reinstated. Faced with uncertainty over whether he violated the order, Fr. Gough has decided to seek a clear verdict in court, with the support of the Christian legal group ADF UK.
ADF UK noted that, while other people have recently faced fines or criminal charges for praying near abortion facilities, Fr. Gough’s case is “the first where prayer that is not related to abortion, but to free speech, has led to criminalization.”
The Pillar spoke via Zoom with Fr. Gough, who was accompanied by ADF legal counsel Lorcán Price, who noted that the U.K. Parliament will be debating whether to introduce censorship zones automatically around every abortion clinic. He urged U.K. residents to contact their representatives, explaining why they oppose the proposal.
The conversation is below. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Fr. Gough, Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) were introduced in the U.K. in 2014 to tackle ‘anti-social behavior.’ When did you become aware that they were also being used to discourage prayerful pro-life witness outside abortion clinics?
I first became aware of it kind of in a vague way. I think there was one previously in Bournemouth a while before the one in Birmingham. But it really hit home that this was something that would impact me when the one was first introduced in Birmingham, because I’d spent many years joining 40 Days for Life and praying outside the abortion clinics there.
On occasions, I had had conversations with people there, and even on a couple of occasions had people change their minds following those conversations. So that was when it really hit home that this would be something that would impact me in what I thought was quite a valuable part of my ministry.
Why did you decide to enter the abortion censorship zone in Birmingham carrying a sign saying “Praying for freedom of speech”?
At no point did I ever think that I was in breach — and I still don’t — of any law or regulation. I did enter the censorship zone with a sign, “freedom of speech.” However, what was prohibited by the PSPO, and what is still prohibited by the PSPO, is what they define as “protest.” They define protest as “an act of approval or disapproval of abortion.” Well, praying for freedom of speech is not an act of approval or disapproval of abortion.
They also prohibit in the PSPO the displaying of signs which are direct or indirect signs that approve or disapprove of abortion. But again, it’s not that.
So I chose to therefore — because I didn’t believe it was breaching the PSPO — to enter the zone with that sign in order to pray for freedom of speech, which is a God-given right which I believe is being more and more infringed upon in our society. And so I chose to enter it with that sign in order to pray for it and to make it clear what I was doing: that I was praying for freedom of speech on that occasion, which is a lawful thing to do.
Was there a specific reason that you entered the censorship zone when the abortion facility was closed?
For one thing, that was when I was available. But at the same time, I’m obviously conscious that people can have heightened emotions around the issue, and so on. So I wasn’t trying to do anything to inflame the situation any more than was necessary.
But for me, it was important to pray within the zone, because, as a Catholic, praying in a particular place that’s of significance is just an important thing to do. Like you wouldn’t bless somebody’s house whilst you’re in your house; you bless it while you’re in their house. And so for me to actually be in the zone and to pray was important. But I wanted to do it in a way that would be least likely to provoke any kind of response.
The charges against you have now been dropped. Why do you feel the need to seek clarity on whether you infringed the order?
I believe that the charges were dropped because the Crown Prosecution Service [the agency that conducts criminal prosecutions in England and Wales] doesn’t really believe that I actually broke any laws. I don’t believe I broke any laws.
However, when they dropped the charges in the letter that they sent to me, they explicitly stated that they reserve the right to pursue them again at a later date. And I really don’t want that hanging over me. I don’t believe I broke any laws or any rules.
Police officers who came and spoke to me whilst I was holding that sign, which said “Praying for freedom of speech,” told me: “You’re not breaking any rules.” So I want my name to be cleared. And by pursuing an acquittal, I want that declaration to be stated clearly by the courts that I’m not guilty, I haven’t broken any laws.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, says that “the process in and of itself has become the punishment for people like Fr. Sean.” Are these events taking a toll on you?
It’s upsetting to be treated like you’re a criminal, when in fact you’re a person of goodwill. And what you do is out of love, out of love for the unborn, out of love for the men and women who are affected by abortion. That is something that’s very important to me. I work for Rachel’s Vineyard, the charity that supports people who are affected by abortion, and it’s a really valuable part of my ministry as a priest.
The idea that you’re therefore being treated as a criminal for your silent prayers, for the thoughts that you’re having in your own head, for expressing concerns that freedom of speech has been impinged - that should not be criminalized, and that is upsetting.
Have you received any support for your stance, particularly within the Catholic Church?
There have been lots of individual Catholics who’ve supported me and I’m speaking today on the day that the story has kind of gone live, as it were. And it’s been very nice to have people from even across the world who’ve written emails to me and said “thank you” and that they were praying for me. So that’s been very nice.
What can Catholics around the world do to support you?
First of all, the most important thing is just to pray, to remember that we’ve got God on our side in every fight, and Jesus has already won the victory. And of course, if you’re in the United Kingdom, we need to make sure our representatives know that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought even, are important rights that we’re not willing to compromise on.
And I think that every Catholic, every person of faith — and even every person of goodwill, because you don’t need to be a person of faith — really has a duty to let their representatives know that these are rights that we believe in strongly.
There were a record number of abortions in England and Wales in 2021, the last year for which figures are available. Does this make the pro-life witness more important than ever?
The pro-life witness, I think, is important no matter what. Of course, it’s a tragedy that so many unborn lives are lost to abortion every year. But each individual life that’s lost to abortion is also a tragedy. And that’s something that my work for Rachel’s Vineyard has really shown: that every single individual life that’s lost to abortion is a tragedy. And it doesn’t just leave a life that’s lost, but it also breaks hearts as well in those who are left behind.
So we need, as Catholics, to see this really as the most important social justice issue of our time. There is no other group in our society whose rights are so disregarded and disrespected as the unborn, even to the extent that they can be lawfully killed. And so this is truly the most important social justice issue of our time.
And perhaps the way that the government and the world around us are going about things at the moment, it might hopefully just be something to spur us on, to increase our zeal to fight for the unborn, to be their voice, the voice for the voiceless. And also just to remember that our Lord Jesus said whatever we do for the least of his brethren, we do it for him.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’d just like to reiterate the point that we have an absurd situation by which people are not just being censored in terms of what they can say, but what they can think in certain zones.
And I’d like to reiterate the point as well that, whatever people’s views on abortion are, whether you’re pro-choice or whether you’re pro-life, this is not really about that. This is about all of our freedoms being respected, regardless of viewpoint.