Father Edward (Bud) Kaicher, the first Catholic priest in San Diego County to be arrested during an anti-abortion protest, pleaded no contest Wednesday to a charge of criminal trespassing.
Kaicher was sentenced to two years' probation for his part in the Sept. 30 demonstration and ordered to stay at least 10 feet away from the entrances of the Family Planning Associates Medical Group in La Mesa. But El Cajon Municipal Judge Larrie R. Brainard was careful to note that Kaicher was not prohibited from continuing to participate in anti-abortion demonstrations.
"Every citizen has the right to beat their own drum, to carry their sign," said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Rubin after Wednesday's hearing. "We're just saying do it in a legal fashion."
The attorneys on the case were halfway through picking a jury for Kaicher's criminal trial when the priest decided to change his plea. The change of heart came about when he and lawyer Timothy Treadwell, a deacon in the Catholic Church, realized they would not be able to make the trial a forum for their anti-abortion views.
Before the trial, Judge Brainard told the lawyers that criminal trespassing was the issue--the only issue--that would be addressed during the trial. Even so, the judge quizzed potential jurors on their views on abortion, and several asked to be excused, saying they could not overlook their strong feelings.
"It was my desire and intent to use the trial as an opportunity to try the issue of abortion," Kaicher said after his sentencing Wednesday. "But, when the judge determined that the parameters within which the defense could operate would be strictly limited to the issue of trespassing, that made it impossible."
"We were really there to discuss trespass. . . . If that was what they wanted to do, the law didn't really allow for that," said prosecutor Rubin. "Father Kaicher's beliefs, as a matter of law, really aren't relevant to that, although I know they are important to him."
Rubin said he felt the judge's sentence was fair. "He's not being prevented from expressing his views. We're just interested in keeping the peace."
Anti-abortion demonstrators have frequently targeted the Family Planning Associates clinic on Fletcher Parkway. The assemblies are usually peaceful, according to prosecutor Rubin.
The demonstration on Sept. 30 was not much different. A group of about 25 churchgoers from Catholic parishes in Santee and Lakeside gathered in the parking lot of the clinic and knelt to pray. Kaicher took his demonstration a few steps farther, right up to the double doors of the clinic, where patients were entering for abortions and other medical services.
Held 'Choose Life' Sign
Kaicher said he sat quietly with his back to the doors, holding a sign that read "Choose Life." The priest said he did not obstruct the door, and that a number of people did in fact pass him to enter the building. "My motivation was to be a sign to them that there's another option," he said.
But clinic officials took a dim view of the priest's activities, and he was arrested by a security guard and turned over to La Mesa police.
Kaicher, the 34-year-old director of the San Diego diocese's Youth Ministries program, is a seasoned protester. While an assistant pastor in Calexico, he demonstrated a number of times at the federal immigration detention facility in El Centro. Kaicher said he was protesting the way in which the government was handling Central American refugees and the way the refugees were treated inside the facility.
But, Kaicher said, he has never been arrested before. In fact, the La Mesa incident was Kaicher's first anti-abortion protest.
'Still Have an Uphill Battle'
On Dec. 15, the bishop of the San Diego Diocese sent a letter to all priests outlining the status of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. In the letter, Bishop Leo T. Maher wrote that, although the Supreme Court may agree to rehear Roe vs. Wade soon, "we will still have an uphill battle in the future."
The letter reiterated the Catholic Church's strong anti-abortion stance and concluded with a call for action: "Let us continue to pray for the conversion of hearts, work for the repeal of anti-life legislation and support the efforts of pro-life groups."
Although defense attorney Treadwell said the letter could be construed as official encouragement to priests to get involved in anti-abortion issues, Kaicher said: "I don't think it would be fair to say that he in any way was encouraging us to become any more actively involved in protests."
Kaicher said he was acting out of his own personal commitment and said he didn't set out to be arrested. "But, quite frankly, I was willing to risk that to make the statement."