Local Catholic’s action against strip club van leads to unexpected result

Moira Cullings

Abriana Chilelli was fed up with driving her kids home from school.

It wasn’t a mundane routine or long commute that created her frustrations. It was a van with images of exploited women parked outside Diamond Cabaret — a downtown strip club — that sat in plain sight of passersby, including Chilelli and her young children.

“There’s a lot of stuff downtown that I was able to distract my kids with for a couple weeks,” said Chilelli. “But then after a while, it was hard. It was right at a light, so it was very difficult because we would always be stopped at the light. That’s where I started to get really angry.

“I thought, ‘All I’m doing is driving home and I’m working really hard to make sure that my kids aren’t seeing this pornographic image,’” she said. “And it was a lot of work.”

Chilelli, who works at the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic Schools Office as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, was upset by the degrading portrayal of the human body.

“We work really hard to teach our kids that your bodies are beautiful and they have meaning and they’re worth something,” she said.

Chilelli’s nine-year-old son started to ask his mom why she always tried to distract them at that particular light. He asked her if it was because of the van.

When she said yes, he replied, “Yeah, it just doesn’t look good.”

“He couldn’t articulate why,” said Chilelli, “but that sense that he had that it doesn’t look good and it doesn’t look beautiful was very clear for him. I was proud of him for being able to distinguish that.”

Chilelli changed her route to avoid the van, but it added 15 minutes to the commute. Between that and her son noticing the vehicle, she knew she had to act.

“It impacted me and made me upset for my son, but also for my daughters,” said Chilelli, “that they would start to think that their bodies might be for some sort of exploitation that was very apparently happening on that van.”

Chilelli reached out to the local police, who told her they were aware of the van but that it didn’t violate any public indecency laws. She then wrote to her city councilman and was referred to the councilman in the district where the van was parked.

“I didn’t expect anything to happen because I figured nobody would care,” said Chilelli.

But she did get a response, and although it wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for, it got the van moved.

It turns out the van’s location was in violation of a zoning code, which says you can’t have a parked vehicle advertising outside of your business, and Diamond Cabaret had to move the van to the back of the building — out of sight from regular street traffic.

“While I’m disappointed the code wasn’t protecting people from seeing the exploitation of people’s bodies,” said Chilelli, “it at least got rid of it.”

The experience reminded her that it’s worth it to stand up for the dignity of the human body, even if you don’t expect a positive result.

“When we look at all kinds of things that are happening in our culture with our understanding of what human sexuality is for and what our bodies are for, I can feel super overwhelmed,” said Chilelli.

“It can feel very much like swimming upstream — trying to raise children in this culture and trying to help them understand what we know from our faith is true about our bodies,” she said.

“This made me feel like actually I don’t have to feel so overwhelmed, that there are concrete steps I can take.”

Chilelli hopes the experience will one day inspire her own children to fight for their beliefs.

“I hope that they can see it as a message for them, too, that they don’t have to simply conform to what inevitably will be 10 times worse for them when they get to be teenagers or adults themselves,” said Chilelli.

“What’s true about the body will continue to be true, and that will become even more important as they grow up,” she said.

COMING UP: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

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Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr