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US strips Berrigan of visiting privileges after woman's sit-in

By Bob Hohler, Globe Staff, 04/01/98

ASHINGTON - Philip Berrigan, the former Catholic priest and peace activist who has spent a decade of his life in prison for civil disobedience, has lost more than his freedom in a federal penitentiary in Virginia.

Berrigan, 74, who is serving a two-year term for damaging a Navy destroyer last year at the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine, recently was banned from seeing visitors, including his wife and three children, for a year.

The federal bureau of prisons imposed the punishment after Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, recipient of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, staged a nonviolent sit-in at the federal prison in Petersburg, Va., on Feb. 16, after visiting Berrigan.

Thirty years after Berrigan began his career of civil disobedience by pouring bottles of blood over Selective Service files in Baltimore during the Vietnam War, he was segregated from the general population at the federal prison for over a week after Maguire's demonstration.

A prison hearing officer then found Berrigan guilty of ''disruptive conduct'' for not alerting authorities about Maguire's planned protest.

The finding and punishment have outraged Berrigan's supporters.

Maguire, in recent letters to federal prison officials and Attorney General Janet Reno, called Berrigan's punishment ''illogical, unjust, and unfair.''

''Philip Berrigan is being punished for something that he did not do, but for something that I did,'' Maguire wrote. She said she had never met Berrigan before the visit, which she made a month after nominating him for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.

Todd Craig, a spokesman for the federal bureau of prisons, said Berrigan was obligated to inform authorities about Maguire's intended sit-in so prison order could be maintained in a ''safe, secure and humane way.''

Maguire, 43, who said she staged the three-hour sit-in to show solidarity with Berrigan and to protest the possible attack on Iraq by the United States, was arrested by police from nearby Richmond, Va. She was charged with trespassing, jailed overnight, then freed the next day after a federal judge dismissed the criminal complaint against her at the request of prosecutors.

However, prison officials pressed the matter. ''The incident did disrupt the orderly operation of the facility,'' Craig said. ''Therefore, Mr. Berrigan was appropriately sanctioned with the loss of social visiting privileges for a year.''

Berrigan is appealing the sentence, although it is unclear whether the appeals process will be completed before his earliest possible release date of Nov. 20. He was awaiting a date for the first of several administrative appeals he would need to exhaust before asking a federal judge for relief.

Berrigan and his family could not be reached for comment. But his friends said Berrigan believes his loss of visitation privileges is particularly unfair to his relatives.

''He certainly feels his family is being deeply punished,'' said Sister Ardeth Platte, a friend of Berrigan who lives with his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, and their children in the Jonah House pacifist community that Berrigan helped to form in Baltimore in 1973.

Platte said Berrigan testified at his disciplinary hearing that Maguire informed him of her planned demonstration. Platte said Berrigan testified that he told Maguire ''to follow her conscience.''

Maguire shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize with Betty Williams, also of Northern Ireland. At the time, they were Roman Catholic housewives who had withstood death threats and physical attacks to form a women's movement to try to stop the sectarian killing in the province. They began the effort after Williams saw a terrorist's runaway car run down three children, killing them. Maguire was the children's aunt.

Berrigan, who has been jailed repeatedly for civil disobedience, led five other religious peace activists in secretly boarding a nuclear-capable Navy destroyer in Maine on Feb. 12, 1997, Ash Wednesday. The protesters used hammers to damage the control panels and poured bottles of their blood on the ship before they were arrested by military police.

At the arraignment, Maine District Court Judge Joseph Field called Berrigan ''a moral giant, the conscience of a generation.''

But a federal jury in Portland, Maine, convicted the group three months later of conspiracy and destroying federal property.

Maguire, in her letter to Reno, lashed out at the prison sanctions. ''I am appalled that the United States, which prides itself and presents itself to the world as the model of democracy, should so unjustly remove such a basic right as all visitations to a prisoner,'' she wrote. ''This treatment of Philip Berrigan, which is really cruel and barbaric, is not acceptable behavior from any democratic country.''

Amnesty International joined the protest. ''The Bureau of Prison's vicarious punishment of Phil Berrigan constitutes cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of his rights under international human rights laws and treaties to which the United States government is a party,'' Francis A. Boyle, a director of Amnesty International, wrote to Reno.

As word spread of Berrigan's latest predicament, among his supporters were Catholic social justice workers who said they have long drawn inspiration from him.

Said Kathy Shields Boylan, at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, ''She made a decision to protest. He should not be held responsible for the conscience of another person.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 04/01/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.