By Kathleen Gilbert
SOUTH BEND, Indiana, May 4, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) - In what may be his first public statement on the situation of 88 pro-life protesters arrested on campus last May, University of Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins has suggested that the protesters deserve to continue facing up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine because they were unruly and led by individuals who "threatened peace and order."
The protesters, known as the "Notre Dame 88" (ND88) were arrested for trespassing on Notre Dame's campus as they peacefully prayed or otherwise symbolized their disagreement with the university for honoring President Obama with the commencement address and an honorary law degree May 17.
Witnesses state that the pro-lifers were arrested while pro-Obama protesters were allowed to roam free - which the ND88's defense attorney says indicates the pro-lifers were selectively punished simply because of their message.
While the ND88 are now in the hands of the county prosecutor, and not Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins has been urged by pro-life leaders to request leniency for the group, something he has steadfastly refused to do.
Jenkins released his recent statement at the same the South Bend Tribune published an article following up on an investigation by the Sycamore Trust, a Notre Dame alumni watchdog group, which discovered that previous protesters trespassing on Notre Dame's campus were treated much more leniently. The Tribune article largely confirmed the Sycamore Trust report, saying that "there have been variations in how some protesters were handled at the university."
Yet in the attending statement, Fr. Jenkins simply reiterated the argument he has repeated in response to various email inquiries, despite its apparent conflict with the findings of the Tribune report. Jenkins claimed that the ND88 were treated they were because "the University cannot have one set of rules for causes we oppose, and another more lenient set of rules for causes we support. We have one consistent set of rules for demonstrations on campus - no matter what the cause."
Jenkins implied that the ND88 deserved arrest because "we require that any campus demonstration ... be peaceful and orderly," be approved by the university, and be organized by a student, staff, or faculty member. However, "those who were arrested last spring met none of these criteria and, in particular, were led by individuals who threatened peace and order by promising upheaval on our campus."
William Dempsey, president of the Sycamore Trust, told LifeSiteNews.com Monday that Jenkins' statement was a "puzzle," inasmuch as it appeared to ignore the findings of the Tribune article altogether.
"I'm mystified by it. I really am," he said. "I'm delighted they did it (the investigation), but judging by what Jenkins' reaction was, it didn't make any impact on him."
Dempsey also took issue with Jenkins' characterization of the ND88, which witnesses attest, and videos show, were a largely, if not entirely peaceful presence on campus. "My goodness sakes, these people are mainly septuagenarian women," he noted.
Jenkins' statement about the group’s leadership was evidently a reference to activist Randall Terry, who had threatened to make the commencement ceremony a "circus" in response to Obama's invitation. Terry had already been arrested at least once for trespassing at Notre Dame prior to commencement, but the extent and nature of Terry's activity on commencement day is unclear. Many, if not most, of the Notre Dame 88 were not associated with Terry, having arrived from states across the nation.
In his statement Jenkins also repeated previous statements indicating that members of the ND88 have been offered "pre-trial diversion." Under this agreement, members of the ND88 could avoid criminal charges and a criminal record if they have no previous criminal record, agree to obey the law for one year, and stay off Notre Dame's campus for a year.
Most of the ND88 have refused the offer of pre-trial diversion however, which amounts in practice to an admission of guilt. Thomas More Society President Tom Brejcha told LifeSiteNews.com (LSN) last year that while some of the arrested protestors have accepted the offer "because of the coercive impact of the fact that they have to pay for expenses and have this thing hanging over their heads," the rest have refused to do so because "they don't think they did anything wrong."
William Dempsey expressed confusion that Jenkins would persist in not seeking leniency for the pro-lifers: the case for doing so, he said, would appear easily grasped from Notre Dame's perspective.
"I'm just talking about the interests of Notre Dame University, and it's all downside here if you support these prosecution, and it's all upside if you don't," said Dempsey. "What do you lose?"