Notre Dame pro-life efforts being tarnished by trespass charges, says law prof

Notre Dame pro-life efforts being tarnished by trespass charges, says law prof

Professor emeritus Charles Rice / Father John Jenkins
Professor emeritus Charles Rice / Father John Jenkins


Respected Notre Dame law professor emeritus Charles E. Rice has criticized University of Notre Dame President Fr. John I. Jenkins’ announcement of new pro-life initiatives, saying they will be regarded only as a “cosmetic covering” unless charges are dropped against pro-life protesters arrested during President Barack Obama’s commencement speech.

In a September 21 open letter to Fr. Jenkins, Prof. Rice expressed appreciation for the university president’s professed support for the pro-life cause in his letter about the initiatives.

He also joined President Jenkins in praising the work for the Women’s Care Center and suggested he invite the pro-life pregnancy support organization to open an on-campus office.

Turning to Fr. Jenkins’ announcement of the formation of the Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life, Prof. Rice voiced agreement with alumnus William Dempsey, who has criticized “the obviously deliberate exclusion” of anyone associated with “unashamedly and actively pro-life” organizations like the Center for Ethics & Culture and the Notre Dame Fund for the protection of Human Life.

Similarly, the task force includes no leadership from the student Right to Life organization or from those at ND Response, the coalition which protested President Obama’s commencement invitation and honorary degree.

“It is hard to resist the inference that this is as a move toward marginalizing the Center and the Fund, neither of which receives any University support the way it is,” Dempsey said.

The alumnus also noted that Fr. Jenkins’ recent annual address to the faculty discussed increasing female and minority faculty representation but said nothing about the loss of Catholic identity and the failure to hire enough Catholics at the university.

Dempsey warned of the risk that the pro-life initiative will distract from the university’s “fundamental problem” of not having enough faithful Catholics to sustain a pro-life effort launched mainly because of outside pressure.

On the matter of the 88 pro-life protesters arrested during President Obama’s appearance at the university, Prof. Rice said University Chief of Staff Frances L. Shavers was being “misleading” in saying that they were arrested for trespassing and not for expressing pro-life views.

In Prof. Rice’s view, the protesters were arrested “not because they were there, but because of who they were, why they were there and what they were saying.

“Other persons with pro-Obama signs were there but were not arrested and not disturbed. Serious legal and constitutional questions are involved, arising especially from the symbiotic relationship between the Notre Dame Security Police, who made the arrests, and the County Police.”

He said it was “disingenuous” for Notre Dame to “pretend that this is merely a routine trespass case.” It is only because of the university’s actions that they are treated as criminals, he charged.

If the protesters accepted an alternative legal option, called pretrial diversion, they would each have to pay hundreds of dollars in costs. In Rice’s view, this was tantamount to a fine.

“Most of the 88 are in straitened financial circumstances. The imposition on them of such a fine would be a serious hardship. Instead, Notre Dame ought to state publicly that it has no interest in seeing those prosecutions proceed in any form and that it requests the prosecutor to exercise his discretion to dismiss all those charges unconditionally.”

Prof. Rice highlighted the case of 79-year-old Fr. Norman Weslin, a longtime pro-life advocate who is a Lutheran convert, a widower and former Lt. Colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division. Rice called his arrest “one of the lowest points in the entire history of Notre Dame.”

“It would have been better for you and the complicit Fellows and Trustees to dialogue with Fr. Weslin rather than lock him up as a criminal. You all could have learned something from him. His actions in defense of innocent life and the Faith have been and are heroic. Notre Dame’s treatment of Fr. Weslin is a despicable disgrace, the responsibility for which falls directly and personally upon yourself as the President of Notre Dame.”

Prof. Rice then discussed Fr. Jenkins’ pledge to attend the March for Life on January 22 in Washington, D.C.

“Notre Dame should have had an official presence at every March for Life since 1973. But until now it never has,” he said.

Fr. Jenkins’ presentation of himself as a pro-life advocate while continuing to be the “jailer” of those offering an “authentic pro-life witness” would be “a mockery,” Prof. Rice charged, again calling for the charges to be dismissed.

“As long as you pursue the criminalization of those pro-life witnesses, your newest pro-life statements will be regarded reasonably as a cosmetic covering of the institutional anatomy in the wake of the continuing backlash arising from your conferral of Notre Dame’s highest honor on the most relentlessly pro-abortion public official in the world,” Prof. Rice wrote.

Bringing his missive to a close, the law professor said, “this letter is not written in a spirit of contention.  It is written rather in the mutual concern we share for Notre Dame—and for her university.  I hope you will reconsider your positions on these matters. Our family prays for you by name every night.  And we wish you success in the performance of your obligations to the University and all concerned.”

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