Steven Neubauer: Religion haunts a women’s health clinic

Steven Neubauer stands outside the Planned Parenthood clinic where he worked and volunteered for 16 years.
(Photo by Yolanda Forry)
“This woman would ‘hex’ us with her crucifix,” Steven Neubauer writes. “When I approached her car to take the photo, she immediately began yelling for help, claiming that I was molesting her.”
(Photo by Steven Neubauer)

In 2003, Steven Neubauer began to escort patients, video camera in hand, during every procedure day at the Planned Parenthood clinic in York, Pa. He did that for five years until 2008, when he became security coordinator for the clinic. He later became security officer after the coordinator position was eliminated. By the time he retired in 2019, Neubauer had logged over 600 volunteer hours as a Planned Parenthood escort and more than 12,000 volunteer hours as security coordinator or security officer. 

By Steven Neubauer

Religious leaders often sing the praises of the “sidewalk counselors” who “minister” to the young women entering reproductive health clinics. Here’s how that “counseling” has worked on one sidewalk.

The protesters I encountered during my five years of escorting and 11 years of working security at Planned Parenthood in York, Pa., were a case study in everything that is wrong with religion. The local Catholic churches would post notices asking people to volunteer to help “save the babies” on Wednesday mornings, the day procedures were scheduled. Sign-up sheets were also posted so parishioners could volunteer for a specific time slot.

These Catholic protesters ranged from those who gathered to pray quietly across the street to very aggressive and provocative people who did everything “legal” to interfere with patients, staff and volunteers. Some groups stood on the public sidewalk in front of our building and prayed the rosary aloud. Other groups would loudly sing hymns, at times with music from a boombox or even live musicians. One retired couple of Catholic protesters rented an apartment directly across the street from the clinic. No one ever lived there; it was used exclusively for many years as a break area for protesters who wished to stay all day. The renting couple often set up lawn chairs on the sidewalk and sat all day watching the front door of the clinic, taking notes and photos.

For several years, one group walked a procession every Wednesday morning from a Catholic church a few blocks away carrying a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary. Upon arrival at the clinic, the statue would be stood up on a pedestal or truck bed and elaborately dressed in robes and a golden crown.  At the end of the day, the Mary statue would be undressed and removed, a process I always thought was a little creepy. 

These Catholic protesters had obviously been trained in how to intimidate and make threats without crossing the line into actual criminal behavior. For example, following news reports of violence at other abortion clinics, one of these protesters, usually a female, would walk up behind me and say quietly: “Did you see where that abortion doctor got shot and killed the other day? You know, Steve, we know who you are, and we know where you live.

In quieter moments, these very same protesters, aware that I had attended Catholic schools as a child, would then approach me and, speaking softly and kindly, express their love for me and their concern for my immortal soul.  They begged me to “return to Jesus” (I am, in fact, a lifelong atheist).

Disregard for the privacy or safety of our patients was common. One female protester, who worked as a substitute teacher at a local Catholic high school, patrolled our clinics daily, informing parents of the patients entering who she recognized as students at her school. A male protester, billing himself as a minister and co-founder of Cops for Christ, took photos of young-looking females entering our clinic. He then presented these photos to police, health and government agencies as “evidence” that our clinic was illegally treating minors.  

The really serious security issues usually came not from the protesters, but from those religious extremists who wouldn’t show their faces out front, and also from the very people who arrived and entered along with the patients. Boyfriends, husbands, fathers, uncles, sometimes even mothers and grandparents would enter the building with the patient to provide “support,” then have a change of mind and start an argument with the patient over the procedure or try to drag the patient out. That never worked, but it only added to the fear and terror felt by the waiting young women. We frequently had angry and abusive boyfriends or husbands waiting outside or trying to gain entrance, often with the active support of the protesters, and we had to arrange for patients to be removed secretly and taken to a shelter.

In addition, during my time there, I had to, along with my ex-cop partner, try to hold the front door shut to keep out a violent group demanding to be let in, while at the same time admitting real patients safely. Also, I once found myself in the middle of a gunfight in front of our building while escorting an employee to her car, and on another occasion was only inches from a pipe bomb deposited near the front door of our clinic. 

I can’t count the number of times I had to step between two people to stop a violent encounter. Patient companions had only to deal with this for one day. But several escorts quit when they could no longer tolerate the constant harassment, intimidation and offensive comments.  

The dedicated ones

I was privileged to know and work with many dedicated, outstanding people: medical staff, doctors, administrators, volunteers, the several terrific partners I had over the years, and several police officers. Our doctors endured constant threats and intimidation and even picketing at their homes. 

Also heroic were the women on the clinic staff. Nearly all younger with families or single mothers, these brave women, never overpaid, endured intimidation and abuse outside the center and stressful and at times tragic situations inside doing their jobs. I recall one young woman whose husband dropped her off for work in front of our building on procedure day. The woman spoke to her two young children in the back seat as she left the car, telling them to behave or they wouldn’t go to Hershey Park on Saturday. As she turned to walk inside, a female protester, rosary in hand, ran up beside her and said: “If you go in there today, we are going to find your kids at Hershey Park on Saturday and tell them how their mother comes here every week and rips the arms and legs off little babies.”

Then, for several years, we had a priest as a regular protester. This guy arrived every week wearing sacramental vestments so everyone would know for sure he was a Catholic priest. He was loud and seemingly never shut up, condemning us all to hell. He tried to interfere with every patient, but took particular pleasure in singling out employees. 

‘Father Porno’

A few months after first arriving, I overheard the priest giving his name to a departing patient companion as a contact for post-procedure “counseling.” I ran the name, Virgil Tetherow, through a few databases and discovered the priest had been arrested several years prior on 23 felony counts involving downloading child pornography on the church rectory computer where he was living. He was allowed to plea down to one felony count of indecent use of a communication device and he was also suspended by the Catholic Church from performing the sacraments, but that suspension was because of his refusal to say the mass in English, not because of the porn issue. 

At times, “Father Porno” would have children, some of them too short to be seen above their “aborted fetus” signs, line up to block cars from entering our driveway. As approaching cars would stop in the street waiting for the children to very slowly move, the adult protesters would swarm around the car, knocking on windows and accusing the occupants of being “baby killers.”

One of the escorts and I met with a reporter from the local newspaper. The following Sunday, the newspaper ran a front page, above-the-fold story about the priest with a felony child porno criminal record who was harassing women every week at Planned Parenthood. That was the beginning of the end for Father Porno at our clinic. His church in York publicly stood by him, insisting that he was a very moral and ethical Christian. His church also, completely straight-faced, stood by his absurd story that he had been framed on the porn charge by the female church secretary.

Some months later, according to news reports, the York church changed its tune after Father Porno allegedly absconded with the school fund and the church computer to start his own church elsewhere in York county. I never saw him again at our clinic. A few years later, there was a notice in the Harrisburg diocese newsletter that Tetherow had finally been defrocked by the Catholic Church. Again, not because of the child porn conviction of many years earlier, but because of his stubborn refusal to obey the pope’s direct order to say the Mass in English rather than Latin.

This type of offensive behavior continued during my entire 16-year tenure at the clinic. And yet, during all those years of demeaning, abusing and terrorizing patients and staff, the protesters, as well as the Catholic and Protestant churches that supported them, continued to publicly maintain that the protesters were gentle and loving Christians being victimized by brutal Planned Parenthood staff and supporters.  

But that’s what religion all too frequently does: It turns decent and thoughtful people into cruel and delusional creatures who haunt the rest of us. 

FFRF Member Steven Neubauer is president of the Central PA Rationalists, a chapter of FFRF.