Family, colleagues, and fellow Christians rallied when freedom of the press was threatened

By Sue Careless
The Interim

When there is danger for journalists, there is danger for freedom, danger for democracy.

UNESCO Secretary-General Frederico Mayor, in awarding the World Press Freedom Award 2000 to Jesus Blancornelas, a Mexican journalist shot by the drug traffickers he was exposing

“The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble.” (Psalms 20:1) is a strange but wonderful blessing. No one wants trouble, but if you’re going to have trouble, better to have God with it.

October 15, 1999, began 41 weeks of trouble. A professional journalist, I was on assignment for The Interim covering the expected arrest of Linda Gibbons, a peaceful, pro-life activist picketing in front of the Scott abortion clinic in Toronto.

A 1994 injunction restricts protest activities within 18 metres or 60 feet of Ontario abortion centres, but does not forbid reporting news events within the so-called “bubble zone.” Until that day, media had worked without incident there. I only wanted some well-composed photos and, with press ID in my wallet, felt no particular risk.

The protest was remarkably quiet and Ms. Gibbons herself is soft-spoken. At one point she walked close enough to me that I could hear her greet a homeless man who passed by with “Have a good day!” “You too, sweetheart!” he replied.

I took no part in the peaceful demonstration nor did I hinder the police as they arrested Ms. Gibbons. Despite this, they also arrested me and two other journalists, Steve Jalsevac, manager of The Interim’s online news service, LifeSite News, and Gord Truscott, a reporter for the Royal City Journal. Our cameras were seized temporarily and our film confiscated for almost ten months. Repeatedly, I identified myself as a journalist. At the police station when the arresting officer asked my name I suggested he read it off my press card.

There’s no point in crying when your arms are handcuffed behind you; you can’t blow your nose. During the three hours of detention, and, especially, after an officer threatened a strip search, I simply tried to keep my wits in what seemed an absurd situation. I was determined not to cry or lose my temper.

From my holding cell I phoned my husband and one of my professional associations, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. Their outrage gave me incredible affirmation.

I was charged with obstructing a peace officer, a Criminal Code offence, which, upon conviction, carries a maximum sentence of two years less a day.

“Lead us not into temptation,” a petition in the Lord’s prayer, can also be translated, “Save us from the time of trial.” That became my constant plea for the next 10 months.

I asked God to either save me from the time of trial (my preference) or through the time of trial, but that whatever happened, to walk with me through it all. I would feel anger, frustration, humiliation, and despair, but never abandoned by God or his people.

If “criminal” and “the accused” became the most frightening words I knew, “family, friends and colleagues” became the most precious. My family kept other pressures off me and listened when I was down.

My husband came with me to every court appearance, and my parents threw a surprise party for our thirtieth wedding anniversary. They helped me celebrate despite the shadows and pervasive sadness.

“You did nothing wrong,” my minister, Chris King, rector of Little Trinity Anglican Church assured me. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.” He reminded me that Christ was wrongfully arrested, charged, and tried as a criminal.

Still, I dreaded returning to the police station two weeks later for mug shots and fingerprinting under the Criminal Identification Act. Two nights before the date, a group of Christian writers and editors gathered in my home and laid hands on me and prayed. It seemed particularly important to me that they touch my hands. Afterwards, I sensed more peace.

Freelance editor and writer Denyse O’Leary came to the police station with me because my husband had to be away. And she proposed lunch afterwards, giving me something to look forward to.

Not knowing how dirty or angry I would feel after the fingerprinting, I had arranged for a private communion service with Denyse and Brian Inkster, executive director of Prison Fellowship Canada.

Before the sacrament, Duke Vipperman, the associate minister, invited me to share my feelings. My suspicions poured out. I had nothing to hide but was my phone bugged? Were the papers I put out for recycling being searched? Worst of all, could the police arrive unannounced at my door and charge me with something else? Brian said I was thinking like a typical victim.

I feared becoming obsessed with the case. Denyse reminded me that Jesus had reached out from the cross to the thief hanging beside him. She challenged me to do likewise: suffering, she said, was no excuse for self-centredness.

Afterwards, Duke anointed me with oil, a sign for me of the strength I would need.

While the actions of the police and the courts humiliated me, God affirmed me through friends and colleagues. For the next ten months dozens of friends across the country wrote, phoned, or e-mailed me. Most of all I felt upheld by their prayers.

Many journalists spoke up for me publicly when I couldn’t because the case was before the courts. Others worked hard behind the scenes gathering professional support. Strong letters of protest were written on behalf by the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, The Canadian Church Press, The Canadian Association of Journalists and The Book and Periodical Council.

Constitutional expert and lawyer Peter Jervis of Lerner and Associates offered to work for mepro bono because he believes in press freedom. I would still have to cover some legal expenses, however.

Friends set up a legal defence fund for me. While the experience taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the criminal justice system, it revealed far more than I had ever understood about the friendship and incredible generosity of family and friends, neighbours, colleagues and complete strangers.

For the first six weeks I thought constantly about the case. I suffered from neck pains and insomnia. In the dark night hours I would pray the Psalms, especially 27, 31, 35 and 91.

“Thou dost hide [those who fear thee]
in the secret place of thy presence
from the conspiracies of men
Thou dost keep them secretly
in a shelter from the strife of tongues”

(Psalm 31:20)

Psalm 91 has been called the 911 emergency psalm. My mainstay was its fifteenth verse:

You will call upon me, and I will answer you;
I will be with you in trouble;
I will rescue you and honour you.

Being wrongfully arrested gives one an inside track on suffering. A close friend was facing brain surgery. Now we could both speak openly of our anxiety at night. We knew the same frustration with waiting. And we both felt tangibly upheld by friends in prayer.

At times despair overwhelmed me.

“Whatever happens, God will be with you,” a friend assured me. “You’ll get through it.” I angrily retorted that she didn’t know how I felt. She looked me straight in the eye and said she did. Then I remembered that her father had gone to prison. Those who have suffered possess a credibility that compels us to heed their counsel. I calmed down.

In late November, the case’s hold on me finally broke. That day I interviewed Canadian novelist Michael O’Brien, author of Father Elijah, for The Interim. His holiness simply washed over me as we talked for three hours over coffee.

I still had bad moments. Being strung out in the limbo of the criminal justice system was abysmal. Twice I blew up at my own counsel in frustration over court delays.

As I reluctantly rode the subway to my fourth court appearance I reminded myself that Christ travelled with me. Then it hit me. He was waiting in the courtroom. It has been said, “You will find Him when you are where you’re supposed to be.”

Finally on March 1, at my seventh appearance, the actual trial date was set – October 30, 2000, more than a year after my arrest. I had been arrested on my mother’s birthday, only to have the trial date set for my younger daughter’s birthday.

In the end, after 41 weeks and 13 court appearances by my counsel or myself, I never received full disclosure as required by law, never saw all the evidence that was to be used against me. Some pages from my arresting officer’s notebook were never photocopied for my counsel.

While I never felt God had deserted me, I certainly didn’t like where He might be leading me. Even if we won in the court of law, I feared losing in the court of public opinion.

London, Ontario, columnist Rory Leishman told me, “You must love the truth more than the favour of men.” He was right; but craving social approval or, at least, evading public disdain, tempted me.

In May I hit my lowest point. On Mother’s Day, after communion, I fled from church, fearing a public trial.

“We are here for you,” Denyse assured me over the phone. “I want out of the system. I don’t want to let them get me” I raved. When I lost it, Denyse boldly prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and gradually I calmed down.

Even if I went to jail, I had to focus on God, she said. I had to see that Christ was not only “my advocate, my defence upon my right hand,” but also my judge. He would clear my name, if not in this life, then in the next.

Then a break came. On June 21, 2000, the other two journalists had their charges dropped. I rejoiced for them, but because I had a different Crown Attorney, I was not guaranteed the same treatment.

Twice after that, the Crown told us he might drop my charge and asked my counsel to meet him in court. Both times he stalled, claiming he needed more time.

On the evening before the first futile date, I took a night walk in a forest with my husband and one of our sons. He alerted us to the cries of great horned owl chicks. We gazed at the constellation Scorpio and watched fireflies shimmer in a pond. I vowed that whatever happened the next day would not rob me of these delights.

The days of delay taught me to offer God whatever I had. If I didn’t have a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, I could offer up the wasted time, the frustrations, the anger, the hurts. I could turn over whatever I felt to God for Him to transform.

I learned to actively wait and trust in God’s hidden work. When we have done all we can, we have to sit back and trust that God and others are at work. And they were.

On July 25th, friends and colleagues again laid hands on me and prayed. The next day the Crown set a meeting for the 28th. At it, the Crown withdrew my charge, admitting there was “no reasonable possibility of a conviction.”

Now I could shout with the psalmist:

Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowler;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!

(Psalm 124: 6 & 7)

I knew from the beginning that I would have to forgive the police and the courts. The first step for me as the injured party is to acknowledge that I have been wronged – even if the offenders do not admit it. As Joseph told his brothers when he forgave them for selling him into slavery, “You meant evil against me but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) So I do not await or seek any apology from the police or the courts. I believe they wronged me and I must forgive them and move on.

I never want to lose my gratitude to those who stood by me, or my sense of dependency on God. In the day of trouble God sheltered me with his presence and surrounded me with his people. He walked with me thorough it all.