SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Air Force One roared off into the sky over northern Indiana May 17, most people considered the controversy surrounding President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame over.
But for the 88 people arrested for trespassing during the controversy, the story is still unfolding.
“I am not guilty of trespassing,” said Penny Cyr of her arrest on May 15 as she walked on campus with a procession of pro-lifers challenging the plan to bestow an honorary doctorate on the pro-abortion president. “I am guilty of praying. I had my rosary in my hand.”
Cyr said she felt her witness was “mandated” by Pope John Paul II’s exhortation in Evangelium Vitae(The Value and Inviolability of Human Life). “We cannot not stand up for life, or you risk your soul,” she said.
The 88 protesters have pleaded not guilty and have asked for jury trials. If convicted, the maximum sentence that can be imposed is one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Their ongoing struggle with the law was highlighted when Tom Brejcha, president of the Thomas More Society Pro-Life Law Center of Chicago, released an open letter Sept. 2 to Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, and Washington’s The Examiner.
Brejcha said that “we were yet more deeply aggrieved on hearing … that you had responded to a request that the charges be dropped by claiming that ‘it is out of [your] hands.’ With respect, Father, the future of these cases — if they must go on — is squarely in your hands. Notre Dame is the complainant. Its security personnel directed and/or conducted the arrests, pointing out those who would be arrested [pro-lifers] and those who would not [those carrying pro-Obama signs and/or taunting the pro-lifers].”
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown differed with Brejcha, saying that under Indiana state law, “Notre Dame is not the complainant in these matters and so is not in any position to drop the charges.”
He stated that the prosecutor has offered a deal to to defendants who are first-time offenders, in which charges would be dropped after a year in the absence of subsequent criminal offenses. “We understand that most of those arrested have chosen not to take advantage of this offer and obviously we cannot force them to do so,” Brown said.
Brown added that the protesters were arrested for trespassing, not for expressing their pro-life position. “We agree with them and uphold the Catholic Church’s position on the sanctity of human life,” Brown said.
Neither Father Jenkins nor Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend could be reached for comment.
Attorney Tom Dixon, who is handling the case for the Thomas More Society, said that technically “the complaining party is the state. … A prosecutor can continue to prosecute a case if the complaining party says he doesn’t want to pursue it further.”
But he noted that if Father Jenkins said he wanted the cases dismissed, “I believe there would be absolutely no reason for Mike Dvorak [Saint Joseph County prosecutor] not to respect those wishes.”
Cyr said she was surprised to be arrested. “We walked on campus praying, and we were arrested,” she said. “All we did was pray. It was unreal.”
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Alan Keyes gave his perspective on his May 8 arrest in an interview a few days later:
“I never planned to be arrested. I planned to try to bear witness. And that’s what we’re doing ... standing on ground that professes to be part of the community of the faithful that is subject to the laws of the Church; people who are disobeying the Church then call in the civil authorities, that’s what’s going on.”
Monica Miller, theology professor at Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., and president of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, explained, “I just don’t think I am guilty for witnessing about abortion on the campus of a Catholic university. These were extraordinary circumstances. Inviting Obama to a Catholic university was a moral outrage. The reason why [Notre Dame] could agree with Obama being there was that the life of the unborn child does not matter to those people.”
On Sept. 8, Dixon’s request for a different judge because of alleged bias was denied. He will appeal that decision. On Dec. 3 he will ask that the charges be dismissed on the basis of selective enforcement and the fact that Notre Dame is a quasi municipality that does not enjoy the same property rights as an individual.
Dixon is optimistic about the outcome.
Thomas Uebbing writes from South Bend, Indiana.