By Susan Gately - 21 November, 2014
The pro-life founder of Precious Life has been found guilty of harassing the director of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast,
Bernadette Smyth may face community service or imprisonment.
Ms Smyth, who was named a ‘Catholic of the Year 2013’ by the US publication Our Sunday Visitor, was charged in Belfast Magistrates Court of harassing former PUP MLA, Dawn Purvis, on two occasions earlier this year outside the Marie Stopes clinic.
The clinic in Belfast opened in October 2012.
Since then pro-life groups, including Precious Life which Ms Smyth set up in 1997, regularly protest outside its premises.
CCTV footage played at the trial showed Ms Purvis leaving Marie Stopes on 9 January 2014.
A protester said to her “May God forgive you”. Ms Purvis stopped, put up her hand and asked the protesters to stop harassing her.
At that stage, Ms Smyth was said to have replied in what was described as an exaggerated Ballymena/American drawl: “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling.”
The second incident happened in February when Ms Purvis’ son and a female friend left the clinic.
A protester followed the girl up the street and Ms Purvis accused the Precious Life founder of “cackling like a witch”.
Ms Smyth said her laughter was a result of nerves and anxiety.
“It was a silly, stupid laugh,” she said. “If I had not laughed I would have cried.” She said she did not believe her actions had been criminal.
Deputy District Judge Chris Holmes said he was not allowing the case to be about the abortion debate.
He simply had to determine if harassment took place. “To say ‘You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling’ in whatever accent is a threat.”
He said he did not feel it was appropriate “for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion and questioned either to their identity, why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed.”
He said the range of possible sentencing might go from community service to imprisonment and Ms Smyth would definitely have some form of restraining order imposed on her.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Ms Smyth’s solicitor said they would appeal against the conviction.
“This is a disappointment for Christians throughout the world,” he said. “We are disappointed with the outcome and we will be raising these matters in other court forums.”
He went on, “The pro-life movement won’t go away. The pro-life movement is a worldwide movement. My client is an international figure in that respect.”
Dawn Purvis welcomed the judge’s decision saying she respected “people’s right to peaceful protest” but she said it was “totally unacceptable to intimidate women accessing a legal health service or the staff that provide their care”.
The Pro Life Campaign said it was “extremely surprised” by the court decision and concerned that it would have implications for freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully on the pro-life issue.
“There have been very few convictions in recent times where clear harassment, intimidation and even violence took place, for example, during anti-austerity protests and more recently in Dublin and elsewhere over water charges.”
“Yet in the case of Bernie Smyth, where things appeared far from clear-cut, she was convicted. That has to be a cause for genuine concern.”
“The abortion debate is not without its tensions but I think many people will be alarmed at the decision to convict Bernie based on the evidence that was presented in court,” the PLC spokesperson concluded.