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Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Catholic World News News Feature

Immovable Object, Irresistible Force December 27, 2001

By James McCoy

By midmorning, 18 pregnant women had entered the abortuary. Tillie Weber stood alone in front of Women's Health Services in downtown Pittsburgh, the same abortion clinic where Joan Andrews has been arrested almost 13 years ago.

Weber was saying the Rosary out loud, raising her voice dramatically whenever someone approached the clinic doors. Once Weber interrupted a Hail Mary to cry, "Angel!" as a women bent on abortion entered the clinic. "That's my guardian angel going after her guardian angel," Weber explained. A few minutes later another woman, probably a clinic worker, having come out for a cigarette, looked over at Weber, and muttered, "Crazy!"

"Angel" or "crazy"--in a way, the two exclamations symbolize the radically contrasting judgments about pro-lifers who spent their time in front of abortion clinics.


Less than a mile away from that Pittsburgh clinic, Joan Andrews Bell, now married with children, was spending her 50th birthday in prison. On January 15, when Bell had refused to accept probation for her conviction back in 1985, Judge Raymond Novak said that she was the first of 10,000 convicted prisoners who rejected probation in favor of a jail term. Yet when she was carried out of his courtroom by four deputy sheriffs, she was smiling.

With her, the question becomes ineluctable. Either Joan Andrews Bell is a herald of the culture of life, or she is just plain crazy.

"God has sent Joan back to us to get us revived," says Bill Cleary, a local pro-lifer who became involved in rescue through his wife Margaret--one of 14 other rescuers arrested with Joan Andrews on May 10, 1985.

Around 7:30 on that fateful morning, Joan Andrews (who already had more than 100 arrests already under her belt) joined with Joseph Wall (who had been arrested 15 times) and 13 others to enter the Women's Health Services clinic, where more abortions have been performed than at any other American site since the 1973 Supreme Court decision that overturned all laws against abortion. Andrews and Wall went to Examination Room Number 6, where they locked the door and barricaded themselves in by pushing an examination table against the door. Andrews broke sterile seals while Wall plastered the walls with pro-life stickers. They began to pray the Rosary together.

When Pittsburgh police came, the 13 other rescuers were quickly removed, and just as quickly swept through the county legal system, where they entered pleas of "guilty" to a charge of criminal trespass, and accepted probation terms which stipulated that they would not trespass again at an abortion clinic. But Wall and Andrews would only be pried off the premises with difficulty and--as events would later bear out--could be neither easily swallowed nor safely spat out by the labyrinthine legal system which had legalized abortion.

Police came to the door of Room 6 and asked Andrews and Wall to leave. They replied that they could not leave as long as abortions would be taking place. Wall read a manifesto. The police repeated their demand, to no avail. Finally, having cut the lock off the door, they arrested Wall and Andrews and dragged them out of the clinic.

The following November, Andrews and Wall faced a jury trial before Judge Raymond Novak of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. When Judge Novak denied them permission to use the "necessity defense"--to justify their trespass as necessary to protect babies from the imminent danger of death--Wall and Andrews were predictably found guilty of criminal and defiant trespass.

With the verdict on record, the next step was sentencing, but Judge Novak wanted time to think about the case. In the interim, he set the bond at $5,000 each for Wall and Andrews. They instantly refused the offer, according to a court transcript made at the time.


"As to why you should feel," Judge Novak said, "that posting bond would be a violation of your principles, that--I don't doubt that it is your principle--I don't understand it ..."

Andrews answered:

Several times I have... in the past put up the surety; when I was sentenced later, the Court would confiscate the money and apply it to the fine ... And that was definitely against my conscience. To pay one penny of the fine, to me ... is paying a penny for doing a good, for saving a human life. I never do that consciously.

"Is not going to jail the same?" Novak asked.

"I don't willingly, you know," Joan replied.

To be willing to pay a penny is to be willing to pay the penalty. But to be willing to pay the penalty is to admit that one was at fault. Andrews would not admit that her rescue was a crime.

But to pay the penalty of serving jail time required a different kind of willingness, a willingness to suffer rather than to do. This Andrews could accept, since it would be clear in that case that she was not cooperating freely.

Judge Novak persisted. He asked Andrews if she understood the conditions for her release, which included refraining from trespassing at abortion clinics.

"I understand, Your Honor," Andrews replied. "I cannot accept it. Can I be sentenced right now?"

Novak replied: "I would prefer to take my time in sentencing, because I regard this as a very serious matter in terms of the law and serious in terms of your rights."

"Could I say something that might help your deliberations?" Andrews asked.


"If you sentence me ... you might as well give me the maximum ... because I can't agree not to rescue children."

"Well," Novak said, "all that I can say is that I wish there was a way that you could see to carry out your beliefs within the law ... I regard you as human beings and respect your right to speak although you may not believe me."

"We do," said Andrews.

"We do," agreed Wall.

Interestingly enough, Raymond Novak is a former Jesuit, a laicized priest.


Ironically, Joan Andrews' unflinching idealism might have been more practical in the long run than any sharp legal reasoning. Her "throw-the-book-at-me" position back in 1985 may have been one reason why when Novak finally released her on her own recognizance. There was only one proviso, but it was an important one. Judge Novak wrote:

The Court finds that the Defendant poses one and only one danger to the community--that of criminal trespass upon facilities which perform abortions ... We, therefore, specify the following condition as the least restrictive condition consistent with reasonable enforcement of the law: that the defendant certify ... that she will not trespass upon the premises of any facility which performs abortions between the date of her release and any hearing on post-verdict motions ... Nothing in this order is intended to limit her ability to protest against abortion in any lawful manner.

Joan Andrews was released on her own recognizance on January 7, 1986. Soon thereafter, with charges pending from at least seven other jurisdictions, she was arrested in Pensacola, Florida, for pulling the plug on an abortion clinic's suction machine. Andrews was convicted of burglary, resisting arrest, and criminal mischief, and sentenced to five years. It was her solitary confinement in Broward County correctional facility, the only maximum security prison in Florida for women, which nagged whatever pro-life conscience was left in the nation in 1986.

But all this happened after that bond agreement back in Pittsburgh, which stipulated that Joan Andrews would not trespass on any abortion facility. And the case docket shows that Joan Andrews did in fact sign an agreement on January 7, 1986.

Today, Joan Andrews Bell says that she never knowingly consented to obey the terms of probation. So why did her signature appear on a paper promising just that? "I do remember the form," she says, "but there was nothing" stipulating that she would refrain from rescue activities. "There was some misunderstanding," she concludes, speculating that she may have signed the last page of the probation form, unaware that a previous page contained the "no trespassing" provision.

In the sworn affidavit which she gave Judge Novak last December, Joan Andrews Bell wrote:

I will not cooperate with immoral, unjust laws corruptly and cowardly imposed on the American people for the sake of pretending to solve social and economic problems by murdering innocent children. I will not accept probation. To accept probation would be to accept the lie that I harmed society by trying to peacefully, prayerfully and nonviolently save children from a brutal death by abortion, and that I therefore need to be rehabilitated. To accept probation means that I sign my name to a paper which says that I will obey unjust laws.

Not even the concerns arising from the fact that she is now a wife and a mother--with a 5-year-old child by her husband Chris and a 9-year-old boy whom they hope to adopt--overrides Bell's dedication to her bedrock principles. Indeed she wrote: "With God's grace, I will die in jail before I place even my family before God. If anyone puts God first, can he ever doubt God's protection over his family? No, Never!"


God may be found in jail, but the devil is in the details. It was the Bells' attempt to adopt Emiliano, a native of Mexico, which precipitated Joan's latest ordeal.

The Bells married and settled down in 1991, with Joan pursuing an apostolate of prayer and sidewalk counseling and Chris running homes for poor, single, and teenage mothers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Three years ago, when the couple opened their home to Emiliano--a boy so handicapped that when he falls down someone else must pick him up--the First Lady of the rescue movement seemed to have settled down into a relatively conventional life.

But then, in the course of what should have been routine paperwork in conjunction with the adoption, a check into Joan's records by the Immigration and Naturalization Service led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to discover a Pittsburgh warrant for her arrest.

Joan, it seems, had never appeared for a hearing in Pittsburgh in June 1986 (at the time she was incarcerated in Florida). So Judge Novak revoked her bond and issued a warrant for her arrest. In October 1988, the governor of Florida, bowing to public opinion, commuted Joan's sentence. But she was to be released only after being sentenced in Pennsylvania. Joan returned to Pittsburgh, where Judge Novak sentenced her to the time she had already served in jail there--64 days. But he added a three-year probation term, once again imposing the condition that she would not trespass again on abortion clinic property.

With that, Joan was finally free. But she never accepted the probation. At first her lawyers asked that the probation order be stayed pending an appeal of her conviction. But the appellate court upheld that conviction in February 1990. In May 1990 Judge Novak summoned Joan to appear before the court and have her initial interview with the probation officer. Joan, who was living in Vermont at the time, said that she never received the summons. When she failed to appear, Novak issued a warrant for her arrest. It was this warrant which showed up in the FBI records last year.

Since the adoption could not proceed until that legal problem was resolved, last September Joan's attorney announced that she would turn herself in.


But before that happened, Joan was arrested. Although the Bells lived in Bayonne, New Jersey, it was an officer from another jurisdiction who made the arrest. Supper was on the stove, but Joan was going to jail. Elaine Davis, presiding criminal judge for the New Jersey Superior Court of Hudson County, having spoken privately to Emiliano, decided that such a child should not be separated from such a mother. She ordered Joan to appear before Judge Novak. Joan agreed, and was released.

On January 15, in the Allegheny County Courthouse, the irresistible force once again met the immovable object. Almost 13 years had passed, and 20 more million babies had been killed.

"Been a long time, Miss Andrews," Novak said.

"It has," Joan replied.

"This is the date," Judge Novak went on, "set for you to appear to go to the probation office to begin serving your probation. Frankly, Miss Andrews--and I believe now it's Mrs. Bell--"

"Yes," Joan said.

"--I suppose I could take action for all of this delay that you have caused," the judge said, "and I have never been so disposed to do that."

"Thank you," Joan said.

"I've only insisted that you simply serve the sentence that I originally imposed," Judge Novak said, adding that "the first condition of probation, is that you report to the probation office, sign up, give them you address ... That is so that your behavior could be monitored and any new arrests could be reported to the court.

"If you do not report to the probation office," Judge Novak went on, "you will force the court to consider a sanction for having done so ... Do you understand that?"

"I definitely understand," Joan said. "I am --"

"-- I'm sure that you do," Novak interrupted. "I think in terms of seeking any resolution of this, we probably exhausted every possibility."

"I agree," said Joan.

Judge Novak put Joan on notice that she must report to the Allegheny County probation office that afternoon, or else face "additional sanctions."

"I have to say, of course," Joan responded, "in conscience, I cannot go to the probation office or cooperate in any way. But I will be back here at 2 o'clock."

Then Joan walked a few blocks from the courthouse to the same abortion clinic upon which she had trespassed almost 13 years before and prayed the Rosary, kneeling on the sidewalk.

In the afternoon, the remarkable hearing resumed. One of Joan's three defense attorneys, Dick Traynor from New Jersey, reminded Judge Novak that back in 1988 he had put Joan on probation whether she accepted it or not. Why couldn't he do the same again today?

"If your Honor put her on probation, she's on probation," Traynor argued. "If you impose special conditions, they're imposed." If Joan violates the condition that she not trespass, then "you bring her back here and you have the right of contempt," Traynor said. "In Mrs. Bell's case, the usual short leash is not necessary to rehabilitate her character ..."

But, Judge Novak told Traynor, that the 1988 probation had turned out to be "a hollow order without enforcement mechanism." As Novak observed, "I ordered her not to trespass on the facilities which perform abortions, and she went ahead and did so anyway, as a matter of conscience."

Traynor next argued that the state has a special duty toward conscientious objectors. "The moral energy of the nation is based upon people of conscience," Traynor said. Traynor compared Joan to Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was being celebrated that same day: January 15. "He wrote from Birmingham City Jail (that) unjust laws are no laws," Traynor said, "and they cannot be followed and they should not be followed."


But those arguments failed to sway the judge, and for her part Joan Andrews Bell seemed anxious to cut through the legal arguments and get to the point. She told Judge Novak:

I just want to state as a fact that I hope you don't put me on probation, unsupervised or supervised. I think it's wrong to impose probation on anyone in a country that has legal child-killing ... so they won't try to rescue babies ... God willing, I won't become a great coward ... So do whatever, you know, it won't affect me. Only way you can affect me: put me in jail. Put me in jail five years, 10 years, whatever.

The showdown, it seemed, would be a simple one, with only two characters truly involved: Bell and Judge Novak. Even the assistant district attorney, asked for his comment, essentially washed his hands of the case. "This is largely a matter between the court and Mrs. Bell at this time," he observed.

Judge Novak was willing to offer the defendant one last chance. He asked her: "You cannot say to the court that you will confine your activity to protest, picketing, inveighing, writing legislation and all those lawful activities?"

But of course Joan rejected that restraint. "You can't just put a limit on human love," she said.

"I understand," Novak replied. "And I understand--I think I understand you, and I think you understand me."


So now the judge was forced the make a decision. Since the fall, Novak reported that he had received thousands of letters on Joan's behalf, including letters from Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, all of them asking "that I be merciful on you ... "

Cardinal Law had emphasized that "the incident which led to her sentencing took place more than a decade ago." He continued:

Mrs. Bell is now married, the mother of children, and also operates homes for women and children in need. Her presence, at home with her family and in the community, offers aid and comfort to many people. I do not believe that the interests of justice will be well served by her incarceration. My hope is that both justice and mercy might both be better served by your imposing a sentence which would allow Mrs. Bell to pay her debt to society by offering service to society.

But Joan was insisting that she owed not debt to society for her pro-life activism. Her position was precisely that of the psalmist: "Must I pay back what I never stole?"

Bishop Wuerl seemed to understand that stance. In his own letter to Judge Novak, he wrote:

I respectfully request that as you deliberate you consider that this woman, wife, and mother ... has already suffered intensely for her actions. My hope is that you would be able to exercise that magnanimity that characterizes our local courts by not placing upon her restrictions that challenge her own conscientious conviction of her calling.

The bishops' pleas represented only a small fraction of the appeals which Judge Novak had received. He told Joan:

I often work in the peace of a quiet courthouse after my staff leaves, and during that period of time, I answer the phone. And I had many times ended up speaking to one of your supporters, frequently from Europe, Asia, other places throughout the world ... I am also impressed that you and your husband are very fine people, who are doing wonderful work for the poor and the needy.

Nevertheless, the judge continued, "you are following the law of God, and I am sworn to uphold the law of man. If by doing so I am violating the law of God, then I am aware that I'm facing a higher court."

He added: "Everyone has asked me to be merciful. I frankly believe that the record in this case will demonstrate that I have been merciful and even-handed with you. What I cannot do is engage in indulgence." With that, Judge Novak revoked Joan's probation, and sentenced her to 3 to 23 months in jail.

Joan, who had been clutching her rosary beads for the past hour, slumped to the ground and became rigid, cruciform. Some people in the courtroom were weeping. Then after a moment of silence the audience burst into applause and sang "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow" as four bailiffs carried Joan from the courtroom.


But the story has a happy ending. Joan Andrews Bell was released from jail March 26.

Nobody can say exactly how it happened. All Judge Novak's office will admit is that a request for her parole came from the jail, and that the judge granted it. Joan's attorneys could add nothing, except that Joan signed no agreement. The county office for Adult Probation Services in Pittsburgh confirmed this. "To the best of our knowledge," said Richard Gardner, a supervisor there, "she never signed anything." Gardner said that his office was in the process of asking Judge Novak how Joan's case should be handled, since "we were facing the same situation" as when she was refused probation back in 1988.

April 15 was the first date Joan should have been eligible for parole, and it is possible that a routine request was sent to Novak's office a few weeks early so that he could take his time deciding what to do. Judge Novak must have signed off on the request immediately. All Gardner knows is that the form which is routinely given to prisoners eligible for parole, which directs the parolee to state where he will live after release, and to promise to contact the parole office, was never filled out.

How can Joan be on parole, if she never accepted the terms of that parole? Wasn't that precisely the impasse that brought her to Judge Novak's courtroom in January? Gardner argues that from his perspective, whether or not the prisoner accepts parole "is of absolutely no consequence." But he concedes that the situation could produce another clash in the future.

The mysterious terms of this parole may represent a face-saving device. Judge Novak can now maintain that Joan is on parole, while she can maintain that she is bound by no promises, and unless some new legal challenge forces the issue, both sides can claim victory.

Asked whether she expects to see Judge Novak in court again, Joan Andrews Bell told CWR, "he knows I didn't sign anything." She is not planning any rescues, she says, because the presence of children in the home has changed her life. She reports that she has participated in rescues "only about four or five times since I got married in 1991."

Joan often takes her daughter and Emiliano to pray on their knees before a New Jersey abortuary. Emiliano knows "that he was found in a garbage can in Mexico City," she said. "A priest down there rescued him."

Joan says that in the past she has felt that God was calling her to risk arrest, "because it becomes compelling." Now, even as she kneels in payer outside an abortion clinic, she does not feel the same compelling urge to rescue. Still she will not close the door to future rescues. Asked whether she thinks the rescue movement is dead, Joan replies:

It can never be dead for two reasons. Number one, God will never stop calling some people to rescue, like some people will always be called to priesthood and religious life. Number two, I believe that God will always raise up somebody to rescue ... You can beat me up, drag me away, throw me away, or kill me, but because I am a Christian and I love these children and Christ, I will get in the way. [AUTHOR ID] James McCoy, a frequent contributor, is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh.