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The arrest of a prominent Bucks County activist is rallying the Catholic antiabortion right

Mark Houck — president of a Catholic men's ministry — was charged Friday with assaulting a volunteer patient escort outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic. His supporters are calling it persecution.

Antiabortion protester Mark Houck (foreground) holds a rosary as he stands opposite a patient escort outside of the Planned Parenthood in Center City on July 20.
Antiabortion protester Mark Houck (foreground) holds a rosary as he stands opposite a patient escort outside of the Planned Parenthood in Center City on July 20.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The arrest of a prominent Catholic activist on charges he assaulted a Planned Parenthood volunteer outside a Philadelphia clinic has sparked a standoff between the antiabortion movement and the federal government, and battle lines are being drawn over the wider significance of the case.

Federal prosecutors have charged Mark Houck — a speaker, author, and cofounder and president of the Catholic ministry the King’s Men — saying he assaulted a 72-year-old patient escort in October outside of the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center, a reproductive clinic near the intersection of 12th and Locust Streets.

But within hours of his arrest on Friday, his wife had publicly disputed the charges, donations for his legal defense began pouring in, and his story has quickly become a cause célèbre on right-wing news sites.

Even Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano weighed in, blasting the case on Saturday as the latest example of what he described as “the continued weaponization of the FBI and persecution by Joe Biden’s DOJ against ordinary Americans.”

The charges — brought under a federal law that makes it a federal felony to injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone seeking to access a reproductive health-care provider — are routine. The reaction, however, has been anything but, exposing long-simmering tensions between an increasingly politicized segment of the Catholic right and the Biden administration, which has pledged to protect abortion access in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

Houck, 48, of Kintnersville, declined to comment on the case, citing the advice of his attorney. The lawyer — John P. Williamson, head of the Pro-Life Union of Delaware County and the host of a weekly antiabortion online radio show — did not return requests for comment Monday.

In filings unsealed Friday in federal court in Philadelphia, prosecutors painted Houck as a physical menace.

They say he twice shoved the 72-year-old — identified in the documents only by the initials “B.L.” — during a verbal altercation while the man was attempting to escort patients inside. Houck stands charged with two counts of assault, which could send him to prison for up to 11 years.

But Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie, disputed that account, in an interview with the far-right, Catholic antiabortion news outlet LifeSiteNews on the day of his arrest, maintaining that it was her husband who was the true victim.

She said the patient escort had verbally harassed Houck’s 12-year-old son, who’d accompanied him to protest outside the clinic that day. When Houck shoved the man in self-defense, family spokesperson Brian Middleton told the Catholic News Agency on Sunday, the escort fell to the ground and suffered a minor injury that a family spokesperson described as requiring only “a Band-Aid on his finger.”

The FBI only became involved, Middleton said, after Philadelphia police and prosecutors declined to prosecute and a private criminal complaint filed by the patient escort in Municipal Court had been thrown out this summer after Houck’s accuser repeatedly failed to show up for court.

The Inquirer could not independently verify those details on Monday. Nor could it locate video of the alleged October assault that the Houcks and Middleton say vindicates their version of the story.

But over the years, Houck, a former youth corrections counselor and father of seven, has garnered a reputation as a confrontational local activist for Catholic causes.

He cofounded the King’s Men, which grew out of Catholic antiabortion demonstrations, as a Bucks County-based ministry aimed at men’s spiritual formation. The group’s website describes it as antipornography, against same-sex marriage, and in staunch opposition to abortion.

» READ MORE: King's Men seeks to build up religious faith among fathers and sons

Houck and other members of the group first gained local notoriety after protesting for five years outside of a Montgomery County adult entertainment store — demonstrations that in 2011 drew a lawsuit from the company’s owner.

The suit described their picketing as a safety hazard and accused Houck and his fellow protesters of sprinkling holy water and planting “miraculous medals” on the site. But a federal judge sided with Houck, finding that the demonstrations — while annoying to the business owner — were protected by the First Amendment.

More recently, Houck has made the two-hour drive from his home in Kintnersville to protest and pray the rosary outside the Elizabeth Blackwell clinic every Wednesday, often hovering there four hours at a time offering what he described in an interview with The Inquirer as “street counseling” to women seeking services.

» READ MORE: Inside Planned Parenthood

“We don’t block” them, he said. “We can’t prevent their access. We can just invite. It’s usually done in a very loving and compassionate way, walking alongside [them], handing the literature, saying, ‘Is there anything we can do for you? Any prayers?’ ”

Asked whether his efforts might be viewed as intimidating by women seeking access to reproductive health, he added: “Some people might characterize harassment in a way differently than I would.”

But Dayle Steinberg, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, described Houck’s frequent presence differently — as a gadfly who had terrorized patients outside the clinic for years with verbal assaults, intimidation tactics, and threats of violence.

“Mr. Houck, who often carries a large knife on his belt, poses a threat to the safety of those seeking entrance to our facilities,” she said. “Violence and obstruction of clinic entrances is unacceptable and illegal. It’s good to see justice served.”

Ryan-Marie Houck maintains that it was her husband’s public profile — not the actual October conflict outside the clinic that led to his arrest — which prompted what she described as an overbearing FBI response.

“A SWAT team of about 25 came to my house with about 15 vehicles and started pounding on our door,” she said, describing her husband’s arrest on Friday. “They had about five guns pointed at my husband, myself, and basically at my kids. They came in as if they were expecting some kind of confrontation.”

On Monday, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Philadelphia field office called the Houcks’ recounting of events as “inaccurate” and described agents’ conduct as “professional” and “in line with standard practices.”

“No SWAT team or SWAT operators were involved,” the statement read. “FBI agents knocked on Mr. Houck’s front door, identified themselves as FBI agents, and asked him to exit the residence. He did so and was taken into custody without incident pursuant to an indictment.”

Still, Ryan-Marie Houck’s account spread wildly on Catholic news sites and helped to garner nearly $200,000 in donations as of Monday evening on a GoFundMe set up to pay for her husband’s legal defense. Antiabortion activists questioned on social media whether the Justice Department had been as quick to prosecute abortion-rights demonstrators who they claim have attacked them outside of reproductive health clinics.

And Mastriano was quick to turn it into fodder for his campaign.

“This show of force carried out by the Biden regime against ordinary Americans is an abuse of power that stands against the fundamental principles on which our country was founded,” his Sunday statement said. “As governor, I will not allow the police state of Joe Biden to enforce his persecution against his political enemies on sacred Pennsylvania soil.”

But with a growing spotlight on the case, U.S. Attorney Jacqueline C. Romero said the prosecution would not be deterred.

“Assault is always a serious offense,” she said in a statement. “If the victim is targeted because of their association with a reproductive health-care clinic, it is a federal crime. Our Office and the Department of Justice are committed to prosecuting crimes which threaten the safety and rights of all individuals.”

A trial date has not yet been set in Houck’s case. In the meantime, he remains free on a $10,000 personal recognizance bond — and barred by a federal judge from protesting outside the Elizabeth Blackwell clinic until the case against him is resolved.

Staff writers Sarah Gantz and Diane Mastrull contributed to this article.