87-Year-Old Norbertine Priest Recalls Arrests with Operation Rescue
“If abortion is indeed murder, then we are compelled, if not impelled from within, to do whatsoever we can to stop this Holocaust.”
By Jim Graves
Norbertine Father Leo Celano, 87, is the community’s first American-born vocation after seven Hungarian members fled communist Hungary and established St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California in 1961. After spending time in seminary on the East Coast, he entered St. Michael’s in 1967, and was ordained a priest in 1972.
A man known for his good humor, gentle heart and soft touch, Father Leo comes alive with emotion when speaking on the issue of abortion. In an interview, Father Leo discussed his experiences with Operation Rescue, a group that engaged in civil disobedience to close down abortion clinics beginning in 1986. Father Leo was active with the group in the heyday of its street activism, in the late 1980s and early 90s, and was arrested three times. In 1991, he served a 22-day stint in jail due to his activism. Operation Rescue changed its tactics in 1993, however, after the passage of the Federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) — which places high fines on and significant jail time for offenders — but they still operate to oppose abortion.
Father Leo has been involved in other aspects of the pro-life movement as well, helping found Mary’s Shelter, a home for pregnant teenage girls.
How did you first get involved with Operation Rescue?
I was involved in the life issues long before Operation Rescue “came to town.” During my theological studies in England, a physician was brought into class to explain in detail the medical procedure of abortion. What had been a mere “idea” before gave birth to a full-blown and horrible reality, this with the doctor’s help. When I returned to the United States in 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, I continued to educate myself as best I could about the issue.
One of our jobs as priests is to educate, and in that position I began to share with my people both in the classroom and in the pulpit the truth about the American Holocaust of abortion. So, some years down the line when I was approached by friends regarding Operation Rescue, it did not surprise me. I was invited to attend an informational meeting, which I did do. In the process of being informed about Operation Rescue, I decided to affiliate myself in a more active role in the pro-life movement.
How successful was Operation Rescue in its activities?
Operation Rescue helped to heighten the awareness and consciences of many a person across the country. It encouraged people to act on their beliefs and convictions.
For instance, if abortion is murder, then one should take action and do whatever may be necessary to stop it. Operation Rescue emphasized prayer, education and action.
Firstly, as Christians, we are called to a life of prayer, developing a good relationship with God. Secondly, we are called to educate ourselves. This was pointed out to us by our bishop at the time, Bishop of Orange Norman McFarland, to educate ourselves on the issues, especially the issue of life, life at all stages of the spectrum. [Editor’s note: Although Bishop McFarland did not participate in Operation Rescue himself, his actions indicated that he felt positively about his priests doing so. He offered, for example, to celebrate the parish Masses of any of his priests in the diocese who were jailed due to participation in Operation Rescue until they were released.] Thirdly, action. Catholic Action. If a person has a good relationship with God and is educated in the Catholic tradition, educated in Catholic morality, you might expect that it is going to manifest itself in some kind of activity. I don’t think that is a gross assumption.
Did you see tangible results in the work of Operation Rescue?
I think that since Operation Rescue came into existence, much has taken place that would not have happened without that catalyst. During the hundreds of rescues across the country, hundreds of babies, possibly thousands, were saved through direct intervention …
Jesus said, “That which you do to the littlest of them, you do to me…”
Through sidewalk counseling, we have approached thousands of men and women with the truth, the seeds of which will germinate in God’s time…
Many served time in prisons for their prayerful, peaceful and passive commitment to the preservation of God’s precious gift of life. Tens of thousands of persons have attended rescues as prayer support, persons who support those risking arrest with their personal presence and the power of their prayers. Hundreds of thousands have been encouraged to gather together at pro-life rallies and functions and Life Chains across the breadth of America. I believe these to be tangible results.
One may ask, why have so many thousands witnessed, if not actually laid their lives down, for the unborn? They are convinced that induced abortion is the direct and deliberate killing of an innocent human being. That is the definition that has been traditionally given to murder.
If abortion is indeed murder, then we are compelled, if not impelled from within, to do whatsoever we can to stop this Holocaust. We have written thousands upon thousands of letters to our legislators, joined educational organizations, opened pro-life centers that counsel men and women who are considering abortions, opened and financed homes for unwed mothers, trained thousands of speakers, sidewalk counselors, hotline counselors, involved ourselves in walking precincts for pro-life candidates, and more, much more — but as far as action on the street is concerned, to my knowledge, very little took place until Operation Rescue came into being.
What Operation Rescue did for God’s people was to give them a vehicle to do what Jesus asks of us, “to lay down our lives” and to “rescue those who are being dragged to the slaughter.” These and other inspired exhortations can be found in Sacred Scripture.
Were the police, particularly in Los Angeles, particularly brutal in dealing with participants of Operation Rescue?
It’s difficult to talk about that because however brutal they were, you have to keep in mind that what’s going on behind the door is far more brutal. You know, we talk about child abuse. Abortion is the greatest abuse, the ultimate abuse. So, however brutal the police may be, it cannot in any way be compared to the brutality by the abortionists and those who help them to do their dirty deeds.
But, specifically, some of the alleged actions of the police in Los Angeles, such as the breaking of bones of Rescuers, did you experience that firsthand?
Yes. I both saw it and experienced it on my own person.
Months before Operation Rescue came into the area there was quite a bit of talk going on at the highest levels of city government. The city council, councilpersons and the mayor [Tom Bradley was mayor of Los Angeles 1973-93] talked much about how these people “should be dealt with.”
They attempted to pass resolutions. I think they did pass them. They were going to deal with this movement vigorously. When Operation Rescue did come into town, two of the councilmen, Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Woo, were actually on the scene.
Did they support the pro-abortion side?
Very much so. And they also were pressing the police to deal with the matter as vigorously as possible.
Were you and other members of the clergy treated with respect or were you targets because you were clergy?
The latter … it appeared to me that they might have seen us as targets.
What evidence do I have? Why do I say that? In one of the trials, the trial of Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, when I was asked to testify, a film clip was shown to certain persons in the court which the judge would not permit the jury to see. What the police actually did as I was lying on the ground is something I didn’t recall as having happened to my person. The policeman had surgical gloves on. I was lying on the ground and he picked up my head as if it were a bowling ball, putting two fingers up my nose and literally picked my body up off the ground.
Jim, so help me, if I had not seen that done on the film, I would not have been able to sign a statement that it was actually done. So, in a sense, God throws a blanket over us to the point that we are not fully aware of the brutality. Now they could have picked me up any number of ways, obviously. That film is available and interestingly enough it was taken by the police. I never thought it was possible to pick a body up by the head.
Nunchakus were used on me in the second arrest and it appeared to me that they were not necessary either. Another film is available where I’m being arrested with the nunchakus and one of the policemen who was arresting me shouts out, more to the crowd than to me because I was groaning, “just take your hands out of your pockets, Father.” And, Jim, the camera was on me, my hands were not in my pockets.
Now that should give you some idea as to what they say and what they do. So to say that they would treat us differently than others, it’s difficult for me to do so, but I must admit I have seen a lot of film clips and I have never seen anyone else being picked up with two fingers.
For weeks later the left side of my nose was swollen [laughing], I thought maybe they just tweaked my nose a bit, but I suppose when it happened a number of blood vessels were broken.
How long were you detained in prison?
The first arrest in 1989 was four days. Two days in the city jail and then we were moved over to the county facility with the general population. In the city jail we were held together in the holding tanks. There were 750 arrested on that occasion. There were approximately 250 arrested in 1990. This was the Saturday before Easter Sunday. As a matter of fact, I have the dubious distinction of having spent two Easter Sundays in jail.
What were Operation Rescue’s specific aims?
I think what it specifically targets is to rescue a child by first rescuing the woman. The rescuers rescue the woman from being brutalized and exploited. And, in the process, they save the child. It really is an apostolate to the woman with the hope and the prayer that we can educate the woman through reason, through scientific evidence and, in the process, save the child from the slaughter. That basically is what it is — it’s a slaughter.
During the trials, the pre-trial motions included a motion that we do not use inflammatory language. If we call an abortion clinic an abortuary, they refer to that as inflammatory language. Well, it’s amusing at best and ridiculous at worst.
To give you an idea, if the Germans referred to Auschwitz as a relocation center and the Jews and the non-Jews, many of whom were Christians, who were being exterminated referred to it as an extermination camp, would the Christians and Jews be accused of inflammatory language?
Of course, the Nazis were relocating them — from above the ground to below the ground. That was their relocation. For us to refer to an abortion chamber as a clinic, clinic infers healing; there is nothing healing about having a child ripped from one’s womb, nothing healing about having the head of a child crushed before the child is pulled out of the mother’s womb.
Do you have any special stories about people whom you have helped through your work with Operation Rescue, some woman who was considering going into the clinic who changed her mind?
Yes, probably the sidewalk counseling is the most effective — talking to young women or older women and the husbands or boyfriends who are with them at that time. There is a group called WEBA (Women Exploited by Abortion), and of course there have been enough women who have aborted their babies to have a fairly large organization. They are the ones who are the most effective in dealing with these women who come with their friends for an abortion. They are the ones who are able to relate better, woman to woman. We are there to help in whatever way we can.
And, at a few of the rescues, of course, I was involved in talking to those who have come for an abortion. I can say that it’s very gratifying to be personally responsible for saving a life.
You know, in any other age if you could claim that you were responsible for saving a life, you would have had to run out in the middle of the street or jump in the water to keep the person from drowning. Something somewhat heroic and spectacular would have had to take place, whether it was a child in the street or a child drowning in the water. But today, the opportunities are far more available to be able to speak with women and men as well, who would otherwise have an abortion or encourage abortion if they were not educated.
And so, it is a real joy for me to have the opportunity of educating people. And of course, as you might realize, this is the thrust of the Norbertine Order. We are in education and we are also in prayer, so, in a sense, we complete the triad. I think we are being called by Christ himself to have a good relationship with him in prayer and to form our consciences, develop our intellects with knowledge and understanding and take whatever action is necessary in order to save lives.
Heroes, we are not. An yet, when someone accuses us of being such I don’t know how to handle that because I do not see myself, nor did the people in Operation Rescue see themselves as heroes.
We were there to answer God’s call: “Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to death; don’t stand back and let them die” (Proverbs 24:11).