Judge Allows Church Protester to Return

By Pat Grossmith
Union Leader [Manchester NH]
Downloaded February 5, 2003

A judge ruled yesterday that a Massachusetts man arrested Sunday while picketing Roman Catholic Bishop John B. McCormack's appearance at St. Catherine Church can still protest outside the church from a distance of 20 yards.

Manchester District Court Judge William Lyons amended bail conditions for Richard Webb, 50, of Wellesley. Webb, a physicist, is charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly sitting down on a sidewalk Sunday outside the church after a police officer told him to move.

Originally, Webb was released on $250 bail and was ordered to stay 100 yards away from the church. Lyons lowered the distance to 20 yards.

Yesterday, Webb pleaded innocent to the misdemeanor charge, and his bail was continued. A trial was slated for April 8.

Police prosecuting attorney Lt. David Mara wanted the 100-yard restriction to continue.

He told the judge the group of protesters was asked to stand in a designated spot and not on the sidewalk because of a snow emergency. All of them moved with the exception of Webb, he said.

"He said the only way he was going to move was to be arrested," Mara said.

After Webb was arrested, there was a "big scene, and people could hear that inside the church," Mara said.

Webb said he opposed the 100-yard restriction because he might want to exercise his First Amendment rights and protest at the church again. Mara said the original bail conditions would not prevent him from doing so.

But Webb said he wanted to be able to protest within clear sight of the church. Mara objected, saying the bail condition was reasonable considering his arrest and what "we consider to be a dangerous situation at that time."

Lyons said he understood the prosecution's position, but "I also understand there's a First Amendment rights issue involved."

The judge noted that Webb could not "encumber the sidewalk, and if he commits another crime, then he's subject to arrest."

Webb, a graduate of MIT, is the owner of R.D. Webb Co. of Natick, Mass., which makes high-temperature laboratory research vacuum furnaces for university, industrial and government research laboratories. Among his clients, he said, are MIT, Princeton University and NASA.

Webb, who alleges his wife was sexually abused by a priest as a young child, said outside the courtroom that on Sunday, protesters were told to stand near a snowbank on the northeast corner of the church's property.

His wife and three teenage children were with him, he said, and the location was not safe.

It was icy on Sunday, he said, and the location abutted the lot where parishioners parked their cars. Webb said he did not see anyone use the sidewalk in front of the church.

He said he asked Lt. James Stankiewicz to allow the protesters on the sidewalk because it was safer. The officer said they couldn't.

Webb asked Stankiewicz what grounds prevented the protesters from using the sidewalk. Webb said Stankiewicz replied it was on the grounds the church had shoveled and maintained the sidewalk and had control of it. That, Webb said, "is completely ridiculous."

He said Stankiewicz told him the church had specifically requested that protesters be kept off the sidewalk.

The officer ordered him to move, and Webb said he sat down on the sidewalk to protest the group's not being allowed on the sidewalk. He said he was quiet and respectful and told the officer that he would neither resist nor assist him in his arrest.

At the time, he said, Stankiewicz told him he was under arrest for trespassing, that no bail would be required and that he would be given a summons with a court hearing date.

Webb said he had no problem with Stankiewicz, who was "a good guy."

But Webb said that when he arrived at the station, the charge had been changed to disorderly conduct. He was told that a captain had changed it.

Stankiewicz was off duty yesterday and unavailable for comment.

Richard Tracy was the captain on duty when Webb was brought in Sunday. Tracy said yesterday that the charge against Webb had always been disorderly conduct.

The question, he said, was whether it was a violation, which meant no bail and Webb would be issued a summons to appear in court, or a misdemeanor, which required bail being set.

Webb, he said, was charged with a misdemeanor.

As for the protesters' location, Tracy said police asked them to stay in a designated area because it was snowing at the time, the sidewalk was narrowed because of snow, and officers wanted to make it accessible to parishioners going to Mass.

Webb said he didn't see anyone use the sidewalk in front of the church, but Tracy said some parishioners park along Webster Street and then cross over to the sidewalk to get to the church.

Webb, who previously lived in New Hampshire and still owns property here, said he protested for 10 months in Boston and was never arrested and encountered no problems. Sunday was the first time he had ever been arrested, he said.

In Manchester, protesters have encountered problems they have not faced elsewhere, he said. Webb said protesters had their signs taken from them and police stopped some motorists who honked their horns in support of those protesting clergy sexual abuse, violating their constitutional rights.

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