A Catholic priest smashed his car into an abortion clinic this morning, then chopped at the building with an ax until the owner fired two shotgun blasts to stop him, police said.
The clinic was not open and nobody was injured in the attack, which came just two days after federal approval of the abortion pill RU-486.
The man drove through a door at the Abortion Access Northern Illinois Women’s Center around 8:15 a.m. He was swinging an ax when the clinic’s owner fired a 12-gauge shotgun twice. Neither man was injured.
The Rev. John Earl, 32, was arrested and charged with burglary and felony criminal damage to property, said Deputy Police Chief Dominic Iasparro. Earl was released later today on $10,000 bond.
Iasparro would not comment on statements Earl made to police about a possible motive.
Owner Alone Inside Building
The building owner, Gerald W. “Wayne” Webster, 56, has rented space to the clinic for 15 years. He sometimes sleeps in the building for security. No one else was inside this morning.
Police said Webster’s weapon was legal and no charges will be filed against him.
“He came at me with an ax over his head,” Webster told reporters. “He would have chopped my head off if I wouldn’t have been armed with a 12-gauge shotgun.”
“I thank God and my shotgun that I’m alive,” he said.
Earl is the pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Rochelle, about 30 miles south of Rockford. Parishioners gathering for Mass on this evening said Earl took over about a year ago and was respected by the congregation.
Bill Cipolla said Earl sometimes spoke about abortion but he would not have considered him a radical.
“It’s something I don’t condone; you don’t look for priests to do that type of thing,” he said. “I think he’s a great priest.”
Clinics on Alert
Abortion providers usually are on alert for violence following abortion-related events in the news, such as this week’s approval of RU-486 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation.
“We haven’t received any specific threats, but anytime abortion is in the headlines we issue an alert to our clinics to take precautions because there is the potential for increased violence,” she said.
The Rockford clinic is not one of the NAF’s 360 member facilities, but “it’s just kind of common sense that clinics would be on alert,” she said.
Earl did not reach the clinic offices with the ax, so damage was confined to the exterior overhead door he crashed through and woodwork in a hallway, Iasparro said.
Open Again Monday
The clinic houses the office of Dr. Richard Ragsdale.
Ragsdale said there have been vocal protests outside the clinic during the past four or five months, but he said he had not noticed Earl.
“I’m not surprised that something happened on the heels of the RU-486 announcement,” he said. “But this is a little more violent than we were expecting.”
Ragsdale said the clinic will open as scheduled Monday.
Ragsdale filed a landmark 1983 lawsuit challenging Illinois abortion restrictions, contending that they required doctors performing abortions to conduct their practices in buildings that in effect are hospitals. Under a settlement that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, women fewer than 18 weeks pregnant may undergo abortions in clinics, while those beyond that term require full-service surgical facilities.
Rockford is located about 85 miles northwest of Chicago.