In the Catholic apostolate he leads, Mark Houck encourages men of faith to wage “noble battles,” particularly against pornography and abortion.
“Men have to look around their culture, their community, in their church and see ‘Where can I do some good? Where can I lay down my life?’” Houck said in a 2008 appearance on EWTN’s “Life on the Rock.”
“That noble cause, the greatest generation of Americans — my grandfather was in World War II — we’ve lost that,” he said.
Today, the now 48-year-old father of seven children is fighting his greatest battle yet: a federal indictment for an alleged assault of a Planned Parenthood clinic escort that could put him behind bars for up to 11 years.
But this is no solitary, quixotic crusade. An outpouring of public support fueled by outrage over the government’s questionable charges for what Houck contends was a minor shoving incident and the aggressive manner in which FBI agents swarmed his house and took him into custody at gunpoint in front of his terrified wife and children has given Houck a fighting chance — and a formidable war chest.
All of this begs the question: Who is the man in the center of this storm?
Among other things, Mark Houck is a former standout football player at The Catholic University of America, a pro-life activist, and a self-described former porn addict whose impassioned and candid testimonies have fueled a national men’s faith formation apostolate, The King’s Men.
He’s also an author, teen chastity speaker, and a radio host for Guadalupe Radio Network, an independent affiliate of EWTN, CNA’s parent nonprofit organization.
And the legal fight he’s in now is not his first court battle.
In short, the picture that emerges from a review of Houck's background is of someone who would appear to be an unlikely target of an early morning FBI raid and a federal criminal prosecution.
In a pair of videos the Thomas More Society released Friday, Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, details the raid outside the family's home in Kintnersville in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the trauma she said it inflicted on the couple's young children, ages 2 to 13.
“He’s my best friend. You can’t take him, he’s my best friend,” she says one of her sons cried. You can watch her describe the scene in the video below.
Promoting ‘masculine spirituality’
Mark Houck grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. A talented athlete, he attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he was a defensive stalwart on the school’s Division III football team.
“I was determined to make my dream of becoming a professional football player a reality,” Houck says in his biography for the Catholic Speakers Organization. He says he was scouted by the NFL’s New England Patriots but never offered a contract.
“God had other plans. I see now that he was preparing me for a mighty work and a career in football was not it.”
Mike Gutelius, one of Houck’s football coaches at Catholic University, tweeted about him after the FBI raid.
“I was blessed to coach Mark at CUA and he was a controlled and disciplined player. We reconnected when I was hired back at CUA and his peaceful heart is contagious,” Gutelius wrote.
“His conviction to save children who have not yet been born comes from the deepest love of God’s children,” he continued. “I believe that his arrest and these trumped up charges are a political move by a culture of death that is now on defense!”
Houck graduated from Catholic University in 1996 and eventually found his calling in full-time lay ministry. Inspired by his own struggles with pornography as a young man, he became a teen chastity speaker, working with Molly Kelly, the founder of the pro-chastity apostolate Generation Life.
“I was first exposed to pornography when I was 10 years old,” Houck revealed in a 2008 talk at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., a short walk from his alma mater, according to an article published by the Catholic pro-life apostolate Defend Life.
“My pornography problem became a full-blown addiction at Catholic University. It was a chronic problem for me,” he said. Despite 22 years of Catholic education, he said, “I didn’t know what mortal sin was; I didn’t know my Catholic faith.”
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Houck said that at age 26 he “made a commitment to God that I would stop looking at impure things,” adding, “I have been set free through the grace of God only.”
In 2006 Houck and a friend, Damian Wargo, then a theology and math teacher, founded a Catholic men’s ministry called The King’s Men to promote what they called “masculine spirituality.”
In an interview on EWTN’s “Life on the Rock,” the two men said they drew inspiration from St. John Paul II’s groundbreaking teachings on human sexuality, more popularly known as the Theology of the Body, and numerous talks they heard on that subject by speaker Christopher West.
“We were so excited about what we were hearing and we were saying, ‘We need to live this, we can’t just hear it and be excited,’” Wargo said in the interview.
Inspired by the theology, Houck, Wargo, and another man began to meet weekly while praying together, learning more about the Theology of the Body, and holding one another accountable.
“So out of this grew The King’s Men, and to this day those meetings continue weekly formation and accountability meetings,” Wargo said.
Another major motivator, Wargo said, was a Catholic priest, Father Phillip Chavez, the founder and director of the Amator Institute, a ministry in southeastern Pennsylvania that encourages men to take on the identity of “leader, protector, and provider,” according to the ministry’s website.
“We needed to lead. We needed to protect. We needed to provide. That’s the first time we had heard that in our life,” Wargo said.
In the interview, Houck said that The King’s Men is “an answer” to the crisis of masculinity in society, not “the answer.”
“The primary battle for men today is the pro-life fight,” he said.
Shutting down ‘S.O.B.’s’
The King’s Men also considers pornography one of the greatest spiritual evils men must combat today.
“TKM strongly believes that every man is a protector, especially of women and children, both of whom are victimized by pornography,” the group says on its website.
The apostolate refers to adult bookstores and other sex shops as “S.O.B.’s” — short for sexually oriented businesses. The group boasts that its activism — more than 100 on-site protests to date — has shut down more than 20 such businesses.
“The adult stores have come to us and told us, through the newspapers, essentially, that we cost them hundreds to thousands of dollars when we’re there,” Wargo said in the “Life on the Rock” interview.
Among the businesses targeted by The King’s Men was a store called Adult World in Montgomery Township, a Philadelphia suburb.
According to a 2011 report by the Philadelphia Daily News, the group held dozens of demonstrations at the store over a period of five years.
“Pornography is a violation of dignity against a human person,” Houck told the newspaper. “Whether you’re single or married, pornography is taking the sacred — the human body — and perverting it.”
The store owners filed a civil lawsuit in 2011 against Houck and other members of the group alleging they trespassed on the property and caused a public nuisance. According to the lawsuit, the protesters waved placards and buried Miraculous Medals on the property.
Houck and the others countersued, and the parties ultimately settled the case in 2015, with the defendants agreeing to restrict their future protests to a public right-of-way, court records show.
The store remains in business. Its owners were not available for comment.
A ‘heaven’-sent encounter
Ryan-Marie Houck told CNA the day of her husband’s arrest that he prays the rosary and does street counseling every Wednesday outside the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Philadelphia.
She also revealed that before her husband was led away by FBI agents, he asked her to get him his rosary, in addition to a sweatshirt and underwear.
Houck’s lawyer, Peter Breen, said in an online interview with CBN News posted Sept. 30 that Houck was trying to “evangelize” the agents on his way to federal court.
“You know Mark is a Christian evangelist. And so his ministry is to reach out to everybody he sees,” Breen said. “So, he was evangelizing the agents as they were taking him downtown to be processed. And so that’s just the kind of guy that he is. That’s the kind of folks that his family are.”
When Houck prays outside of the Planned Parenthood where the altercation took place, he does so in coordination with a Philadelphia pro-life group called the Pro-Life Union.
The organization says it brings together a network of pro-life organizations in the greater Philadelphia area to build a culture of life through advocating for public policy, social activism, outreach, and education.
Tom Stevens, the group’s president and CEO, told CNA that Houck has been praying outside the Planned Parenthood clinic for 20 years and has had great success in the past year alone.
“I know of numerous moms [planning to abort their babies] who’ve changed their mind because Mark was there,” he said.
A video Pro-Life Union released on Sept. 26 shares the testimony of a couple who chose to keep their child on the day of their scheduled abortion because of Houck’s sidewalk counseling.
A young woman identified only as “Jadda” says in the video that she was scared to have an abortion and felt shame. She says that she had one hand on the door of the Planned Parenthood when Houck said to Jadda and the unborn child’s father, identified as “Markeem,” who also appears on the video, “You don't have to do this.”
The mother says that Houck tried to get to know them on a deeper level. “That’s another reason why we [were] quick to open up to him because it wasn’t like a judgmental thing at all. He was really digging deep,” Jadda says on the video.
The baby’s name is Nevaeh, which is “heaven” spelled in reverse. The couple named the baby that because she is “heaven sent, a gift straight from God himself,” Jadda says.
“Thank God [Houck] was that extra push because she wouldn’t be here. We probably wouldn’t be together, I probably wouldn’t be here living on my own,” Markeem says on the video.
Houck even organized a baby shower for the couple, who were “so grateful,” Steven said. CNA was not able to contact them for an interview.
Jadda called her daughter a “warrior” who was born two months early at one pound and seven ounces.
“The pro-lifers definitely were there for us every step of the way,” Markeem said.
In an article, Houck wrote about the day he met the couple at the clinic on Jan. 20, 2021.
“The power of God in heaven was revealed to me that day,” Houck said. “Despite worldly concerns, God is still in control and with each gift of life there is hope. I pray little Nevaeh is a reminder of hope for you as she is for me.” You can watch the full video below.
Stevens said he has known Houck personally for years.
“I was shocked when I got a call from somebody at like 10 in the morning who I could hear shaking on the phone — because he’s a friend of Mark’s — that this had happened,” he said, referring to Houck’s arrest. “It was just so egregious and such an unnecessary show of force that scared the daylights out of his small children and showed disrespect for what’s normal.”
What happened outside the clinic?
The federal government’s allegations against Houck stem from an altercation that took place outside a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 2021.
The indictment alleges that Houck twice shoved a clinic patient escort during a verbal altercation while the then 72-year-old man — identified in the indictment by the initials “B.L.” — was attempting to lead clients inside the clinic.
Houck gives a different account. He maintains the escort was “harassing” Houck’s then 12-year-old son, according to a statement from the Thomas More Society. A former family spokesman earlier told CNA that Houck pushed the man away from his son and the man fell to the ground, resulting in a minor injury that only required a “Band-Aid on his finger.”
The former spokesman, family friend Brian Middleton, said there is a video of the altercation that Houck’s legal team was in the process of obtaining.
When local authorities declined to press any charges, the escort, Bruce Love, filed a private criminal complaint in Philadelphia municipal court, court records show. Middleton told CNA the case was dismissed after the escort repeatedly failed to show up to court.
The records of the case are not longer publicly available. However, a copy of Love’s complaint obtained by CNA mentions only one pushing incident, while the federal indictment refers to two.
The complaint accused Houck of simple assault and harassment and said the altercation “stems from ongoing problems” with Houck going back two years.
Love alleged that Houck told him “to stay away from him” or Houck would push him “into the street,” the complaint stated. Love said that as he walked away Houck pushed him “causing him to fall to the ground,” according to the complaint.
The complaint said that Love “sought medical treatment a few days later” for injuries to his “right hand, arm & hip area.”
CNA was unable to reach Love for comment.
Houck spoke during a July radio program about his son being the target of harassment outside the clinic.
“I was scared the first time I went [to pray and do sidewalk counseling outside the clinic] 20 years ago, but it’s gotten a little easier every time I go,” he said.
“It isn’t always easy. I don’t like being yelled at. I don’t like being chastised or derided or rebuked. I don’t like being called names. I don’t like when I bring my son there and he’s called names,” he said. “But I love, I relish the joy of serving God, and being a small, little piece — a minuscule piece — in potentially the saving of a soul. And it’s happened many times.”
Among those who have come forward to speak about Houck’s character is Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Coffey of the Archdiocese of the Military Services, USA. He said in a video released Friday by the Thomas More Society that he has been friends with Houck for 35 years going back to before Coffey was in the seminary.
“He is an incredible guy. He’s incredibly compassionate, and motivated, and dedicated, and heroic, and courageous,” said Coffey, who served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Mark is “all the things you want to be, you know, for a husband, a father, a friend, a leader in the Philadelphia pro-life community for many many years.”
Coffey said he went on one of Houck’s retreats for fathers and sons who bonded in the woods and built a chapel from nature’s materials, along with attending eucharistic adoration and Mass.
“I have great respect for him. He’s a tough guy, I know he played football in college,” Coffey said. “And I know he’s worried about his wife and children” who range in age from 2 to 13.
“But what I can say with great sincerity,” Coffey added, “is that they picked the wrong guy to mess with.”
Shannon Mullen is the Editor-in-Chief of CNA. He previously worked as a features writer, investigative reporter, and editor with the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. He has received numerous national reporting awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.
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Twenty-two members of Congress are demanding an explanation from the Department of Justice after the arrest of a Catholic pro-life leader in front of his wife and children at the family’s home in Pennsylvania last week.