Violence of the Lambs: The Legacy of Anti-Choice Extremist Father Norman Weslin

When Father Norman Weslin, founder and head of the notorious anti-abortion “rescue” group Lambs of Christ, died on May 16, the small handful of remembrances that were sent out in anti-choice circles reflected where he’d stood on the spectrum of the “pro-life” movement: an extremist who lived in the swirl of the most violent faction of the cause, while professing that his was a nonviolent witness.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, and most recently the force behind the new anti-abortion “cyber-pub,” Pro-Life Warrior—a website that recently published an article titled “Who Do We Kill Next?,” written by the attorney of an abortion doctor assassin—reminisced about hosting Weslin at his home, traveling with him and being arrested at his side. Troy Newman, the current head of Operation Rescue, declared the priest a “great pro-life hero.”

And the Thomas More Society, a Christian legal defense group that represented Weslin as part of the “Notre Dame 88” (a group of abortion protesters arrested in 2009) praised him as a visionary who was “ahead of his time” in his promotion of nonviolent civil disobedience.

In May 2009, a 78-year-old Weslin came into the national spotlight after years of relative obscurity when he became the face of the large-scale anti-abortion protests at Notre Dame surrounding President Obama’s commencement address. Looking confused—Weslin was moved to a care facility for Alzheimer’s patients in nearby Michigan a short time later—the frail and bespectacled priest was gingerly separated from the six-foot wooden cross he’d been carrying by police, and, in an eight-minute video set to a soaring Christian ballad by Saviour Machine, he began singing “Immaculate Mary,” before collapsing in the arms of his arresting officers.With a bouquet of microphones in his face as he sat on the ground, he rallied to ask, “Why are you arresting a priest for trying to stop the killing of a baby?” A tearful Rick Scarborough asked God to protect Weslin in jail, and the video went viral.

Violence by Another Name

Weslin’s lifetime example of “nonviolent” protest, the Thomas More statement read, was now being used by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their recent call for Catholics to engage in civil disobedience against the Obama administration’s HHS Health Care mandate.

But for abortion providers and their advocates, Weslin’s nonviolence is just violence by another name. Weslin was a veteran of some of the most highly-publicized clinic blockades of the last 20 years, having been arrested between 70 and 80 times, mostly for entering or barricading abortion providers’ offices.

A former Green Beret and paratrooper, and an army specialist who had been in control of nuclear defense systems for New York City, Weslin became a priest in 1986, six years after the death of his wife Mary, for whom he created a namesake series of homes for unwed mothers. In 1988, two years after ordination, he put his military training to the test when he joined hundreds of other anti-abortion protesters to blockade three Atlanta clinics during the Democratic National Convention, resulting in the arrest of nearly 300 people. It was the moment that launched Operation Rescue as a national brand, and Weslin’s fellow arrestees read like a who’s-who of the violent anti-choice fringe, many of whom are in the orbit of “justifiable homicide theory”: the argument that murder is theologically justified in the defense of the unborn.

There was James Kopp, the 1998 assassin of Dr. Barnett Slepian; Jayne Bray, wife of Army of God chaplain Michael Bray, a convicted clinic bomber and justifiable homicide advocate who wrote A Time to Kill; Regina Dinwiddie, an Army of God member who received the first Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act restraining order for her threats to clinic patients and staff; Shelley Shannon, the perpetrator of eight arson and acid attacks on clinics who would go on to shoot Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in both arms in 1993; Larry Donlan, of Omaha’s Rescue the Heartland, who drives one of Operation Rescue’s gruesome “Truth Trucks” past the homes of abortion clinic staff; as well as Patrick Mahoney, now a comparatively mainstream advocate as National Director of the Christian Defense Coalition. (Mahoney does not mention the 1988 arrests in his CDC bio, and does not seem to have eulogized Weslin.)

Twenty years later, a number of Weslin’s Atlanta cohort—like Shannon, Dinwiddie and Bray—would become chief supporters of Scott Roeder, the Operation Rescue follower who shot Dr. Tiller at his church in 2009.

The 1988 arrestees were housed separately for 40 days, resulting in the creation of an ad-hoc movement school that the prisoners compared to the civil rights schools of Birmingham jails in the ’60s, with boisterous sermons from various jailed anti-abortion ministers delivered two or three times a day. “It was the greatest experience of my life,” one preacher told David Samuels of the New York Times in a 1999 profile of Slepian’s killer James Kopp, another protester noted by movement peers, before the shooting, for his nonviolence.

This group, investigative journalist Amanda Robb reported, is often credited with helping create a violent anti-abortion handbook, “The Army of God Manual,” that offers guidance on clinic arson, bombing, vandalizing, gluing locks and “disarming” abortion providers by “removing their hands”—an idea that likely inspired Roeder’s alternate plan to cut off Dr. Tiller’s hands with a sword. The first sentence of the manual set the stakes for this class of protesters: “This is a manual for those who have come to understand that the battle against abortion is a battle not against flesh and blood, but against the devil.”

Father Baby Doe

Weslin, reportedly emulating Operation Rescue protest tactics, went on from his arrest in Atlanta to lead the Lambs of Christ—a group of several hundred traveling protesters who called themselves “Nonviolent Victim Souls” or “Victim Souls of the Unborn Christ-Child,” and who were described by the New York Times as “the shock troops of the rescue movement throughout the 1990s.” But they became fiercer than their teachers, leading Operation Rescue to start sending activists interested in heavier tactics—like chaining oneself to clinic doors—to the Lambs.

Led by “Shepherd” Weslin, the Lambs marched on to famous actions in the early ’90s in Burlington, Asheville, Fargo, Wichita, and other cities nationwide. Weslin demanded total control of his troops, telling Samuels, “We are interested only in those who of their own free will would submit themselves totally and completely to the Lamb concept, which places a shepherd in charge. And that shepherd calls all the shots.” The Lambs locked themselves to doors or junk cars, blocking clinic entrances with chains or locks welded to fit tight around their necks. The best locks were so tight around the neck that they couldn’t be cut without risking cutting the protester’s throat, and had to be removed with a grinder, keeping the clinic closed for many more hours.

After one such junk-car-blockade outside Dr. George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kansas, a former staffer told Ms. magazine, “It was just chaos. The women would come in and they were traumatized.”

Kathy Spillar, Executive Vice President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, says she watched Weslin play a central role in violent attacks against clinics. “Having led defense efforts on many occasions to protect clinics, patients, doctors and medical staff against blockades and invasions Weslin helped lead—in Houston in 1992 and Little Rock, Arkansas in 1994, just to name two—I personally witnessed Weslin using violent tactics and encouraging others to use violence. He led a group of his Lambs of Christ in 1992 in a rampage, ramming through a line of pro-choice clinic defenders who were circling a clinic with linked arms, knocking several to the ground. One woman suffered a concussion,” says Spillar. “He used the garb of a Catholic priest to keep law enforcement authorities at bay.”

Through the blockades, Weslin earned the nickname “Father Baby Doe,” after his Lambs (including many familiar faces from Atlanta) would only give their names as Baby Jane or Baby John Doe when arrested, and sometimes refused to speak or walk. He described these tactics to Samuels:

“We become babies when they arrest us,” Weslin explains. “We can’t walk, because the baby can’t walk. The baby can’t give a name. We don’t have names.” The Lambs would sometimes adopt more extreme measures, including taking emetics before their arrest and lying passively for hours in their own filth, as a baby would under similar conditions.

In 1992, the Lambs’ rescue movement took a turn to the supernatural, as Weslin decided in a Fargo jail that movement members were being attacked by demonic forces that compelled them to flail on their prison beds like fish, levitate, contort their faces and bark guttural threats about coming to get Weslin. “When these Satanic interventions ended,” Samuels reported, “the afflicted Lambs would lie on their beds with peaceful smiling faces and proclaim that ‘the Blessed Mother was issuing little babies out of me, and she loves the Lambs of Christ.’ 

From that era, Weslin’s activism took a particular emphasis on spiritual warfare, seeing the battle over abortion as part of a larger, unseen fight between angelic and demonic forces. “Unless you understand this is a colossal war between Jesus Christ and Satan, you don’t understand what we’re doing,” Weslin told another reporter in 1992.

The Shouters are the Consolers

In 1993, Weslin traveled with James Kopp and later Shelley Shannon, both of whom would go on to commit acts of violence against abortion doctors. In 1995, Weslin moved to Syracuse, New York, during a period when violence against abortion clinics in upstate New York and Canada had picked up. An Operation Rescue associate, Robert Jewitt, told the Buffalo News in 1998, after Kopp killed Dr. Slepian and became a fugitive, “Father Weslin always looked for people with intelligence and daring.”

After the fury of the ’90s abortion battles boiled over in Buffalo, Weslin went west, and was first seen protesting the Bellevue, Nebraska clinic of Dr. LeRoy Carhart in 2000. Carhart’s clinic and family have long faced extremist violence, suffering arsons at both the clinic and their family farm, where nearly 20 horses and other animals were burned to death in 1991, along with the house and barn.

But after Dr. Tiller’s murder in 2009, Carhart’s Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska (ACCON) became the chief target of anti-abortion fury. Less than three months after Tiller was shot, Operation Rescue teamed up with Larry Donlan’s Rescue the Heartland and Nebraskans United for Life for the August 2009 “Keep it Closed” campaign, to harass Dr. Carhart out of plans to reestablish Dr. Tiller’s practice. During the protests, witnesses from the Feminist Majority Foundation claimed to see Weslin kicking a pro-choice volunteer repeatedly.  

For years, Weslin was among the chief protesters at ACCON, along with Donlan, who has been accused of following individual staff members and making vague threats of public exposure—“you are next,” he shouted at one staffer in 2009—unless they quit. In daily protests, Donlan and Weslin made use of the proximity of the neighboring crisis pregnancy center, A Woman’s Touch Pregnancy Counseling Center, where Weslin’s attorney served on the board of directors.

In a way, it’s a funny overlap for the anti-abortion movement, where crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have increasingly sought to present themselves as the moderate face of the cause, going so far as requiring volunteers to pledge to not engage in public sidewalk demonstrations outside abortion clinics in order to distance themselves from the image of shouting and shaming protesters. In reality there’s often been substantial overlap between the movement’s clinic shouters and CPC consolers—in some cases, enough of a relationship for CPCs to appear as a de facto staging ground for larger anti-abortion protests. For Weslin, there was no distinction at all. 

Christine Wilson, one of Weslin’s disciples, learned to see the abortion fight as Weslin did: as total spiritual war. She is today the director of Gabriel’s Corner, a CPC in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the state line from Carhart’s clinic in Bellevue. Gabriel’s Corner is located on a suburban street across from a Planned Parenthood with a wrought iron fence that Wilson envisions as “the gates of hell.”

Wilson’s involvement is another ripple from the Atlanta summer of 1988. Her brother is Pastor Chet Gallagher, a celebrity anti-abortion figure who made national news at the Atlanta protests when he, then a Las Vegas police officer, publicly changed sides and was arrested alongside Weslin. Gallagher was launched on a career of clinic blockades, and today serves as the local leader of Las Vegas’ Operation Save America—a group notorious for distributing “wanted”-style posters of abortion providers, an act that has been judged in federal appeals court as an implicit death threat.

Back home in Iowa, his sister’s CPC continues the legacy of the longstanding but unevenly maintained Mary Weslin Homes for Unwed Mothers, the series of maternity homes Weslin began in memory of his wife. Wilson, who used to go on rescues with Weslin and considered him her spiritual leader—in fact, she considers him “as close to a saint as you’re going to get right now”—had her friends buy another neighboring house so they could “surround Planned Parenthood” with energy associated with various angels and conduct outright prayer warfare.

In 2006, Weslin, who frequently lived with Wilson and her husband or the couple that founded Gabriel’s Corner, was arrested for entering Carhart’s ACCON and charged with a FACE violation, though he was later acquitted. In 2008, he entered ACCON again and was arrested and charged with criminal trespass after kneeling before patients and begging them not to have abortions, then folding into a fetal position, “in solidarity with helpless children in their mothers’ wombs,” according to his lawyers. They described Weslin as “a Roman Catholic priest in his late seventies,” too old to do harm. In his sole statement Weslin said, “I know for sure there was no violence involved.”

In his declining years, Wilson says, Weslin developed dementia, and went to live in a care facility in Michigan run by the wife of one of his Notre Dame attorneys. They helped him continue prayer vigils outside the local Planned Parenthood, and even travel to Washington DC. Weslin’s last arrest would be at Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office in late 2009, for staging a sit-in while Operation Rescue protesters shredded two entire copies of the health care bill—nearly 4,000 pages in total—and threw them on the floor. In time, Capitol police arrested the protesters, and Weslin got up out of his chair to lay on the ground in Pelosi’s doorway, looking frail, and waiting for the police to carry him away.

kathrynajoyce@gmail.com'

Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Her articles have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, and many other publications.