Fr. Tony Van Hee around the time of his arrest in October. Photo courtesy Donald Andre Bruneau

Editorial: A failed law

  • November 3, 2022

The national disgrace of a priest in his 80s waiting years for pointless criminal charges to be abruptly dropped can be mitigated if a constitutional challenge overturns the law that caused the scandal.

Nothing, of course, will give back to Fr. Tony Van Hee the time lost between ages 83 and 87 as he hung in legal limbo not knowing whether he would end his days with a criminal record merely for insisting on his Charter-protected right to free speech. But he and his lawyers, including Toronto’s Phil Horgan and Albertos Polizogopoulos in Ottawa, believe the greater good is pressing the courts to strike Ontario’s speech-suppressing “Safe Access to Abortion Services Act.”

The 2017 law crafted by the former Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne, Fr. Van Hee’s legal team argues, is so overly broad that it has everything to do with violating Charter freedoms, and demonstrably nothing to do with guaranteeing safe abortion access. Polizogopoulos points out only two people have been charged under the Act in five years. One died before his case was heard. The other was Fr. Van Hee.

As The Catholic Register reported on our website Feb. 28 as well as in this week’s print issue, criminal charges against the octogenarian Jesuit were withdrawn in an Ottawa court when the Crown conceded it was not in the “public interest” to proceed. The wonder is it took 48 months, almost to the day, of prime legal brain power to reach that patently obvious conclusion.

When Fr. Van Hee was arrested on a public Ottawa sidewalk Oct. 24, 2018 for protesting inside the so-called “bubble zone” around the Morgentaler clinic, he was not even objecting to abortion. His cause was free speech. One sign made the point unmistakably: “Without free speech, the State is a corpse.” 

He was nevertheless bodily barred from standing within the legal 50-metre “safe access” perimeter, and charged with intimidation. The charge later became two criminal counts of “inform(ing) or attempt(ing) to inform a person concerning issues related to abortion services, by any means, including oral, written or graphic…” and “perform(ing) or attempt(ing) to perform an act of disapproval concerning issues related to abortion services...” 

The unmistakable clang of Soviet-era show trial language in those two legislative clauses should have alerted any Canadian lawyer, never mind Crown prosecutors, that the charge could not, would not, and should not stick in Charter-governed Canada. Yet it took 35,160 hours of Fr. Van Hee’s life for the criminal prosecution to be brought into line with fundamental justice and common sense.

Minus those lost hours, Fr. Van Hee is now free. Free of criminal prosecution, guilt and sanction. But what of the next person who holds up a sign protesting an unjust law and insists on the right to decry it? Catholics, indeed all Canadians, must pray the constitutional challenge succeeds where the criminal law so scandalously failed. 

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.