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A Showdown for the Ages

The level of intrigue in the legal drama involving the “Notre Dame 88” (ND88) has reached a new high. Prolifers will undoubtedly recall well the 2009 “commencement scandal” on the campus of what is widely considered American Catholicism’s flagship university. Nevertheless, permit us a brief synopsis.

The University of Notre Dame invited U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver the keynote address and receive an honorary law degree during its May commencement ceremonies last year. Catholics were outraged that the university would so honor a president who, in the two months prior to the invitation, had lifted the Bush ad­ministration’s restrictions against funding for abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, as well as restrictions against allocating U.S. tax dollars to pay for abortions in foreign countries. The owner of a legendary pro-abortion voting record as a senator, Obama famously said that he wouldn’t want his daughter “punished with a baby” if she were to “make a mistake” by getting pregnant out of wedlock. It’s no surprise then that hundreds of thousands of Catholics signed the Cardinal Newman Society’s petition imploring Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins to rescind his invitation to the man who has become known as the most pro-abortion president in U.S. history. Over eighty U.S. bishops joined the outcry, including South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy, whose diocese is home to Notre Dame. A fitting summation was delivered by Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted who, citing a 2004 directive that Catholic colleges and universities are not to give awards, honors, or platforms to pro-abortion politicians, called Notre Dame’s invitation “a public act of disobedience to the bishops of the United States.”

Despite the wave of protest, the show went on as planned. Many brave souls, not content with signing petitions and stewing at home, decided to take the protest to the Notre Dame campus on commencement day, where a rally had been planned. A group of prolifers broke off and marched through campus, singing and praying and giving peaceful witness to the horror of abortion. Campus police were on high alert that day and swooped in to corral the protestors. Onlookers watched with bewilderment as a team of four cops arrested Fr. Norman Weslin, an octogenarian Catholic priest, whom they took to the ground, handcuffed, and hauled away. All throughout the tussle, Fr. Weslin croaked out “Immaculate Mary” in a broken voice, stopping only to plead, “Why would you arrest a Catholic priest for trying to stop the killing of a baby? You’ve got it all backwards!” An eight-minute video of the arrest that was posted to the Internet has achieved nearly iconic status.

In all, eighty-eight persons — hence the name Notre Dame 88 — were arrested, taken to jail, charged with “trespassing” (i.e., protesting without administrative sanction), and made subject to criminal prosecution. Each faces up to a year in prison and a fine of $5,000. The Thomas More Society has mounted a valiant defense of the ND88 at no charge to the defendants. (For first-person explanations of the protesters’ motivations and the legal team’s defense strategy, see the letters by ND88’er Dr. Terese M. Rachor Beste and chief counsel Tom Brejcha in our June issue, under the header “Updates on the ND88.”) Fr. Jenkins, meanwhile, has studiously ignored pleas from various quarters to request a halt to the legal proceedings. Though Notre Dame no longer has the power to drop the charges, such a request on behalf of the school president would carry great weight with county prosecutors.

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