A national leader in the pro-life movement is testing a federal judge's order restricting abortion protests near women's clinics in Western New York.
The Rev. Norman U. Weslin, a Catholic priest and founder of the pro-life group New York Lambs of Christ, is charged with violating that court order by praying in front of the Buffalo GYN Womenservices clinic on four occasions last year, government prosecutors said.
Weslin, who is in his early 70s, pleaded not guilty to the charges during an arraignment Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder in U.S. District Court in Buffalo. Weslin was released pending further court proceedings in March.
"They have a mission," Weslin's attorney, John J. Molloy, said of the pro-life group. "They feel in their heart of hearts abortion is evil and they're doing the right thing. He doesn't feel he's breaking the law."
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara in July ordered abortion protesters to stay at least 15 feet from abortion clinics in Erie and Niagara counties, Rochester, Batavia and Greece. The distance was extended to 60 feet at a few facilities, such as Buffalo GYN Womenservices, where protesters have threatened bombings and killings.
Those restrictions will stay in effect indefinitely, while lawyers for the state attorney general's office and local abortion providers continue efforts to make them permanent.
Officials at Buffalo GYN Womenservices, meanwhile, told government officials Weslin broke Arcara's order by being on the sidewalk 17 feet from the clinic on at least four occasions between Sept. 9 and Oct. 21. The U.S. attorney's office filed charges against Weslin last month, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Campana, who is prosecuting the case.
"He was kneeling on the sidewalk in a white robe and priestly-looking attire," Melinda DuBois, director of the Main Street clinic, said of Weslin. "He knelt in front of the clinic and prayed. He would do that from 15 minutes to a half-hour. Then he would pace back and forth in front of the door."
Weslin, dressed in a tattered and patched black robe, a dark winter coat and shoes held together by electrical tape, was accompanied to the courtroom Wednesday by about a dozen supporters.
A retired Army officer, Weslin is described as a missionary pro-life priest who preaches across the country. Weslin, according to the group's Web site, has been arrested between 60 and 70 times, and served four months in prison for the Lambs' 1996 blockade of a clinic in Rochester.
Weslin would not comment after his court appearance, but his group offered a statement.
"The federal government is persecuting a nonviolent, faithful pro-life witness," said Mary E. Quinn, a spokeswoman for Lambs of Christ. "Why would a federal judge put a Roman Catholic priest in prison for saying the Rosary in prayer on his knees outside a killing center?"
DuBois had a different take.
"This is a ruling from a federal judge that protects our clinic," she said. "This man obviously feels he doesn't have to abide by a federal law. No matter what his beliefs are he has to follow the law, and he was in true violation."