Priest Drives Car Into Abortion Clinic

R O C K F O R D, Ill., Sept. 30, 2000 -- A Catholic priest smashed his car into anabortion clinic this morning, then chopped at the building withan ax until the owner fired two shotgun blasts to stop him, policesaid.

The clinic was not open and nobody was injured in the attack,which came just two days after federal approval of the abortionpill RU-486.

The man drove through a door at the Abortion Access NorthernIllinois Women’s Center around 8:15 a.m. He was swinging an ax whenthe clinic’s owner fired a 12-gauge shotgun twice. Neither man wasinjured.

The Rev. John Earl, 32, was arrested and charged with burglaryand felony criminal damage to property, said Deputy Police ChiefDominic Iasparro. Earl was released later today on $10,000 bond.

Iasparro would not comment on statements Earl made to policeabout a possible motive.

Owner Alone Inside Building

The building owner, Gerald W. “Wayne” Webster, 56, has rentedspace to the clinic for 15 years. He sometimes sleeps in thebuilding for security. No one else was inside this morning.

Police said Webster’s weapon was legal and no charges will befiled against him.

“He came at me with an ax over his head,” Webster toldreporters. “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 Masson this evening said Earl took over about a year ago and wasrespected by the congregation.

Bill Cipolla said Earl sometimes spoke about abortion but hewould 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 followingabortion-related events in the news, such as this week’s approvalof RU-486 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said VickiSaporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation.

“We haven’t received any specific threats, but anytime abortionis in the headlines we issue an alert to our clinics to takeprecautions because there is the potential for increasedviolence,” she said.

The Rockford clinic is not one of the NAF’s 360 memberfacilities, but “it’s just kind of common sense that clinics wouldbe on alert,” she said.

Earl did not reach the clinic offices with the ax, so damage wasconfined to the exterior overhead door he crashed through andwoodwork 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 clinicduring the past four or five months, but he said he had not noticedEarl.

“I’m not surprised that something happened on the heels of theRU-486 announcement,” he said. “But this is a little more violentthan we were expecting.”

Ragsdale said the clinic will open as scheduled Monday.

Ragsdale filed a landmark 1983 lawsuit challenging Illinoisabortion restrictions, contending that they required doctorsperforming abortions to conduct their practices in buildings thatin effect are hospitals. Under a settlement that was upheld by theU.S. Supreme Court in 1990, women fewer than 18 weeks pregnant mayundergo abortions in clinics, while those beyond that term requirefull-service surgical facilities.

Rockford is located about 85 miles northwest of Chicago.

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