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The Sad Tale of Frank Pavone
What happened? - An Initial Reaction
NOTE: This is an initial reaction, right after the news of the laicization. Much has happened and come out since then. Please refer to the NC Register or the Pillar for those updates.
Who is Frank Pavone?
Frank Pavone is an American pro-life activist and laicized Catholic priest. He is currently (as of this writing), the National Director of Priests for Life, is the chairman and Pastoral Director of Rachel’s Vineyard, is the Pastoral Director of the Silent No More campaign, and is the National Director of Gospel of Life Ministries.
Frank Pavone is an intelligent man, even graduating valedictorian of his high school class in Port Chester, New York. He went to seminary with the Salesians directly out of high school, but then decided to become a secular priest for the Archdiocese of New York. He was ordained to the priesthood on November 12, 1988. He was appointed the director of Priests for Life by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1993.
He has done considerable work in the pro-life movement. He has served on the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family and has helped mobilize outreach at the local, regional, and national levels.
Frank Pavone has been outspoken on political matters, all focused on defending innocent human life. He rightly and clearly said in 2004: "One can't hold public office and say it's O.K. to kill some of the public." Where most priests try to stick to principles of faith and morals and let the laity engage in politics. Pavone has never had a problem getting into the partisan fray. During the confirmation hearing of John Roberts to the Supreme Court (in 2005, when there were still many pro-life Democrats), he had this to say:
"Senate Democrats, especially those seeking re-election next year, should know that we will be watching them carefully. If they again attempt to attack a nominee's faith or pro-life convictions, their constituents will know about it and they will be held accountable."
In 2001, Cardinal Egan of New York told Pavone to step down as head of Priests for Life and accept a Parish position. In 2005, Frank Pavone had a significant difference of opinion with Cardinal Egan. And so, he transferred to the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas but wanted to continue to pursue his anti-abortion work on a fulltime basis under Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo. In March of that year, it was announced that Pavone would establish the “Missionaries of the Gospel of Life”, a collective of priests and seminarians exclusively dedicated to prolife work.
Lack of Due Discernment
Two years into the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, Pavone shut down the religious community and merged it with Priests for Life. He believed that the community was diverting attention and resources away the primary goal of ending abortion. He said,
“We don’t want to get bogged down. Once we started the community, all our time and energy were going into priestly formation.”
In addition, when Pavone began this process, he had promised to build a $130 million pro-life seminary for the diocese. That never happened.
I think this sentiment shows us the problematic focus of Frank Pavone. Abortion is the preeminent issue in our society today, to be sure. But one would imagine that having well-formed priests engaged in ministry would bear fruit in due time. To cut this short because it is not bearing immediate fruit seems to show a lack of discernment in starting the community, a lack of follow through, and a narrow single-minded preoccupation without due prudence. This unfortunately became a trend for Pavone.
I think that Pavone’s own words show the true content of his mind and heart on this matter. In 2007, when the religious community was beginning to unravel, Frank Pavone wrote this on his blog:
“Put simply, there are too many leaders in the Church who are more concerned about controlling God’s work than about doing God’s work. The control freaks want everything done at their command and according to their specifications - or not done at all.”
Financial and Legal Issues
Pavone failed to disclose financial details and reported a $1.4 million deficit in 2010 despite collecting tens of millions of dollars in donations in the preceding years ($9.3 million in 2007, $10.8 million in 2008, and $12 million in 2009). In 2010, income dropped to $10.7 million but expenses remained the same; thus, the deficit of $1.4 million.
Priests for Life, under Pavone’s leadership, loaned $879,000 to the non denominational Gospel of Life Ministries, an offshoot of Priests for Life. The IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of Gospel of Life because they did not file any forms for three consecutive years.
The organization of Priests for Life depleted its reserves and seeks to operate by spending what they take in. Anyone familiar with business (or common sense) knows that this is not savvy or sustainable especially considering the economic downturn in 2008. Priests for Life said in 2011:
“We are not called to accumulate millions in savings or investments, but rather to use all our resources to end abortion!”
Due to the financial abnormalities and some other friction, Bishop Patrick Zurick, Frank Pavone’s bishop, of Amarillo, Texas recalled Pavone to Amarillo on September 13, 2011 and suspended his public ministry outside of the diocese. He invited Pavone to a private meeting as well. Pavone did not respond. The meeting, according to Bishop Zurek, was to discuss Pavone’s “spiritual progress during this time of prayer and reflection.” From September 13, 2011, Pavone was restricted to a convent in Amarillo, but nonetheless made use of television, radio, and social media to continue his work. Bishop Zurek, when queried by the local news said:
“I would welcome a meeting with Father Pavone, face to face, a meeting as his bishop. I am still waiting for a favorable response to that.”
This sort of neglect of one’s local ordinary is unthinkable for a priest. The month prior, Bishop Zurek sent a letter to his fellow bishops expressing his concern for the way that money is managed by Priests for Life, Rachel’s Vineyard, and Gospel of Life Ministries. He cited “deep concerns regarding his [Frank Pavone] stewardship of the finances of the Priests for Life (PFL) organization.”
Pavone claimed that he sent possible dates to the bishop to meet in Amarillo, but received no indication that his letter had been received. Instead, Pavone claimed, the letter accusing him of disobedience was sent to the U.S. bishops. While much of this comes down to each man’s perspective, Archbishop O’Brien of the Archdiocese of Baltimore remarks that from his perspective:
“I appreciate Bishop Patrick Zurek’s statement and would hope that Father Pavone would adhere fully to the requests of his bishop. Bishop Zurek has been so very patient and thorough in dealing with this matter over many months. I appreciate his decision and support it completely.”
He Said - He Said
During this encounter in late 2011, Pavone sent out a solicitation letter for Priests for Life which said: "Even as you read this I am praying for and working toward a speedy resolution of my current situation… In obedience to my bishop, I am carrying on with our shared pro-life mission from a convent here in Amarillo." He also vaguely refers to “misinformation and outright attacks” stopping short of attributing them to his bishop. He goes on to say:
“... There are people who call themselves 'Catholic' who want to destroy Priests for Life. They are part of what Pope Paul VI alluded to in 1972 when he said that 'the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God. In reality these self-proclaimed 'Catholics' are heralds of the culture of death. And their strategy right now is to put out a constant drumbeat of lies and false accusations against Priests for Life in the hope that unsuspecting people will begin to believe them and stop supporting Priests for Life."
Ostensibly, Pavone refused to have a meeting with his bishop. Further, Bishop Zurek made it abundantly clear that the use of money, not the mission, was the issue: “In no way would I want to harm, in any way, form or fashion, the pro-life movement.”
Fr. David Deibel the Chief Canonist for Priests for Life, a few days later, issued this statement as a justification for the no-show to the meeting:
“As Canonical Advisor to Fr. Frank Pavone and Priests for Life, I have, on numerous occasions, communicated on their behalf with Bishop Patrick Zurek, asking for a mediator as a first step in restoring trust and facilitating healing in the relationship between the bishop and his priest. I can attest that Fr. Pavone is eager to restore with Bishop Zurek the trust and communication that should exist between any priest and his bishop. Fr. Pavone remains in Amarillo as directed by his bishop, and remains faithful and obedient.
The details and history of the present situation are such that moving forward to a resolution is no longer simply a matter of getting together and talking. Several Church officials have made it clear that they believe mediation is necessary, and that they are willing to undertake a role as mediators. Unfortunately, Bishop Zurek has not responded to or even acknowledged any of these requests.
Instead, he wrote to Fr. Frank, asked him to come to a one-on-one meeting with him, and asked him in writing not to speak to anyone about the meeting. Then, the next day, before Father Frank even had an opportunity to respond, the Bishop announced the meeting on the front page of the website of the Amarillo diocese.
As his canonical consultant, I advised Father Frank not to have this private meeting until the process of mediation is underway. All of us want this entire process to be carried out in private rather than through the media. He remains hopeful and prayerful that the bishop will respond privately to requests made of him, and that this situation will be resolved shortly in a truly Christian and ecclesial manner. I ask all to respect Father's prayerful wishes in this regard.
Reverend David L. Deibel, JD, JCL”
So, here we have a classic his word versus his word. Who is most closely aligned with reality? What are the deeper machinations at work here?
Friction with Zurek and Pavone’s Appeal
What is clear is Bishop Zurek’s concern about Pavone’s obedience. He said,
“Father Pavone has gradually lost his need to show appropriate obedience to his Bishop. It seems that his fame has caused him to see priestly obedience as an inconvenience to his unique status and an obstacle to the possible international scope of his ministry.”
He also said that his concerns were deeper than finances. He was worried about Pavone’s “incorrigible defiance to my legitimate authority as his Bishop.”
Pavone was perplexed by the Zurek’s suspension and said,
““I have begun a process of appeal to the Vatican. This process aims to correct any mistaken decisions of the bishop in my regard and to protect my commitment to full-time pro-life activity for my whole life. We are very confident that the Vatican will resolve this matter in a just and equitable fashion.”
Pavone further said that Canon Law allows him to put the Amarillo return on hold due to his appeal to the Vatican. However, he said,
“Nevertheless, because of my great respect for this Bishop and my commitment to be fully obedient at all times, I am reporting to Amarillo this Tuesday, in hopes that I can sort this problem out with the Bishop in a mutually agreeable and amicable way.”
Whatever the truth of this matter is, whether Pavone was obedient or not, Philip Lawler, the editor of the conservative website Catholic World News, had a very interesting comment at the time:
“For years Father Pavone has run PFL as his own personal fiefdom. He has been answerable only to the PFL board of directors -- on which he and his paid subordinates have formed a solid voting majority. That long run of complete autonomy is now coming to an end."
Lawler makes another good point, in this piece, that Zurek used the wrong word: Pavone was not suspended, he was called back to serve in the diocese in which he was incardinated. And especially considering building a seminary for Amarillo was something promised by Priests for Life, the diocese had every right to ask what the money was being used for instead.
For Ed Condon’s fantastic commentary at the time, read more here.
In 2012, Pavone’s Vatican appeal appeared to be victorious. The decision of the Congregation for Clergy was not available to the public, but there are two public statements - from the Amarillo diocese and Priests for Life.
Priests for Life said the following which seems celebratory, but, as Philip Lawler put it “hinted at some remaining conflict.”:
“While we fully agree that Bishop Zurek has rightful authority over the priests of his diocese, we also see the urgent need for Father Pavone to be allowed to conduct his priestly ministry outside the diocese of Amarillo for the good of the pro-life movement.”
Bishop Zurek said that:
“In its decree of May 18, 2012, the Congregation for the Clergy has sustained Father Frank A. Pavone’s appeal of his suspension from ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo and his appointment from me on October 4, 2011 as Chaplain of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in Channing, Texas. Father Pavone is to continue his ministry as chaplain until further notice. As a gesture of good will, I will grant permission to him in individual cases, based upon their merits, to participate in pro-life events with the provision that he and I must be in agreement beforehand as to his role and function. All other matters are outside the purview of this statement.”
Thus, the fundamental conflict was unresolved by the bishop’s action and Pavone’s appeal. There was still a need for a case-by-case analysis of the activity of Frank Pavone. And the final statement that “all other matters are outside the purview of this statement” makes it clear that Zurek had no desire to answer any questions from the public.
Due to the whole affair, and Zurek’s letter to the bishops to not support Priests for Life until greater financial accountability is implemented did a number of contributions to the ministries. Priests for Life was in financial dire straits.
Cardinal Dolan and Pavone - 2014
In 2013, the Congregation for Clergy conducted an apostolic visitation to Priests for Life. After the investigation, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was asked to “assist Father Pavone with several necessary reforms.” However, Pavone, according to Cardinal Dolan, refused to cooperate with the reforms. The cardinal thus told the Vatican, “I am unable to fulfill their mandate, and want nothing further to do with the organization.”
Catholic World News summarizes the main pattern that has, by this time, emerged regarding Pavone:
“In his letter Cardinal Dolan reminds the other American bishops that Father Pavone has a history of clashing with the prelates who have sought to oversee his work. PFL was founded in New York, but after disputes there with Cardinals John O’Connor and Edward Egan, the pro-life activist sought and received a transfer to the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas. But his troubles continued there, and he was eventually suspended by Bishop Patrick Zurek. The suspension was lifted in 2012 after an appeal to the Vatican, but the difficulties persisted, leading to the apostolic visitation.”
Blasphemous Communications on Social Media
One of the main charges mentioned against Pavone in his recent laicization was “blasphemous communications on social media.” What is that referring to?
Without a doubt in mind, it is referring to the 2016 Facebook live videos from Priest for Life’s chapel where Frank Pavone placed an unborn child’s corpse on the altar as he urged people to vote for Donald Trump on Election Day.
On November 8, 2016, Bishop Zurek and the Diocese of Amarillo posted the following statement (in full):
“Priests for Life, Inc., is not a Catholic institution, but a civil organization, and it is not under the control or supervision of the Diocese of Amarillo.
Father Frank Pavone has posted a video on his Facebook page of the body of an aborted fetus, which is against the dignity of human life and is a desecration of the altar. We believe that no one who is pro-life can exploit a human body for any reason, especially the body of a fetus.
The Diocese of Amarillo deeply regrets the offense and outrage caused by the video for the faithful and the community at large. The action and presentation of Father Pavone in this video is not consistent with the beliefs of the Catholic Church.
The Diocese of Amarillo is opening an investigation about all these matters.”
The first of the videos was 44 minutes long and the other was 4 minutes and 33 seconds long. The message was overtly political. It showed the naked dead body of an unborn child flanked by two burning candles on the altar.
A pathologist had entrusted the body of this child to Pavone for burial. It appears that the pathologist was okay with using the child’s body in this way. However, Pavone told the National Catholic Register after the videos that “he did not know when the baby would be buried. He said the body was out of his hands and back with the Protestant minister.”
He also said that if he could do it over, he would have used a table rather than an altar. He mentioned that he said Mass in the chapel but the altar had not been formally dedicated by a bishop. There are a lot of problems with this. First, after the outrage and scandal, he should have realized that his actions were inappropriate and blasphemous. So, it should not be done over. Second, if a Catholic priest regularly uses a chapel in his own organization, he should make it priority one to get the altar consecrated! Again, there is a pattern of pro-life activism first and Catholic priesthood second (if at all).
The chapel had been used for Mass since the dedication of the office fifteen years earlier in 2001. Father Thomas Petri, O.P. of the Dominican House of Studies said that “People are rightly appalled. The Code of Canon Law is very clear about not giving scandal to the faithful and not acting contrary to the holiness of the place.” He goes on to explain that even though the altar is not consecrated by the bishop it is
“still considered holy by virtue of the fact that a priest regularly celebrates the holy sacrifice of the Mass upon it in the chapel. But it creates scandal for the faithful to see someone ‘violat[ing] the sanctity of the worship of God by placing a dead person on an altar. In that way, it doesn’t matter whether it is consecrated by a bishop or not. It clearly looks like an altar; it’s dressed like an altar — therefore, it’s an altar.”
In a direct and potent statement, Fr. Petri said, “St. John Paul II said [in Veritatis Splendor] an intrinsic evil is anything that contradicted human dignity, and this contradicted human dignity.”
Canon 1376 says that “a person who profanes a moveable or immovable sacred object is to be punished with a just penalty.” The consequences for Pavone over this incident ultimately rest with Bishop Zurek.
Trump and Pavone
The presidency of Donald Trump was a golden age for pro-life policies, federal appointments, and Supreme Court nominations. Frank Pavone rightly deserves a large share of credit for his tireless work in pro-life advocacy at the national level. In 2017-2019, he continued speaking out vocally in support of pro-life Republicans and denouncing the Democratic Party which by this time had become rabidly pro-abortion.
In January 2020, Pavone was appointed as co-chair of the “Pro-Life Voices for Trump” coalition which had the goal of mobilizing voters who oppose abortion to support Trump. This coalition was announced just days before Donald Trump was the first sitting president to address the March for Life (I was there… it was awesome).
During this time, there were some questions about Pavone’s political and ecclesiastical activity. How could a priest serve in leadership positions to reelect the president? Much of this was left ambiguous by Pavone and by his diocese. This all points to something happening, unbeknownst to most, in the background.
In addition to “Pro-Life Voices for Trump,” Pavone was also a member of the “Catholic for Trump” advisory board. Pavone mobilized all of his strength and influence (which is considerable) to campaign for Trump and show how the Trump administration was putting Catholic social teaching into practice. He said:
“This coalition is going to be truly a movement where Catholics rise up and say, 'Hey look, everything that the Church has been saying, we're seeing it unfold before our eyes, not like magic, but with strong effort and united effort under this president.’”
Catholic News Agency (CNA) asked Pavone if he needed permission of his bishop for campaign activity (remember back to the still-standing 2012 statement from Zurek). He did not answer directly. Instead he “suggested he did not need such permission because, he said, his focus is on opposing abortion.”
"‘Right now, all the advice I have been given is that, from the perspective of permissions and so forth, all the advice I have been given is not 'Oh no, don't do this.’ Pavone added that he thinks engaging with his bishop is ‘a dysfunctional process,’ and that ‘you can't very well ask or receive anything, because there's no relationship, there's no communication.’”
For a priest to speak this way of his bishop, 9 years after the initial issue further shows a pattern of disregard, disrespect, and disobedience. CNA also reported in April 2020 that:
“Pavone told CNA that he is in the process of "transferring" from the Diocese of Amarillo, where he has been incardinated since 2005, to a new diocese, adding that he considers himself to be already under the authority of a different bishop. ‘The new bishop, to whom I've been transferred, is the one whose authority I am under right now,’ he said, describing himself as a ‘priest in good standing,’ which he told CNA means that he is not subject to any canonical penalties or prohibitions.”
What this means is unclear. Did he transfer in actuality or is it still in process? Who cares whether he “considers himself” to be under the authority of a different bishop. Is he or isn’t he? This is strange, to say the least.
Catholic News Agency discovered that as of November 11, 2019, Pavone was transferred out of the Diocese of Amarillo and was put under a new and supportive bishop. However, Pavone is not at liberty to name the diocese or the new bishop. His canonical advisor, Fr. Deibel, however said,
“Yes, Fr. Frank remains incardinated in the Diocese of Amarillo. Period. Yes, a transition is in process. Period. That transition was authorized through a process that was concluded in Rome. Period.”
So, what is the truth here? Where is he incardinated? It is the end of 2022, Pavone has been laicized, and it is still not clear where this transition was taking place and even if it took place.
The USCCB’s statement on political life, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” says explicitly that “the Church’s leaders avoid endorsing or opposing candidates.” Obviously, this does not phase Pavone who is singularly focused on the abortion issue while prominently wearing his red MAGA hat.
On April 17, 2020, CNA asked Pavone about canonical permission for his political work. On that same day, shortly after, Pavone responded with this on Twitter:
“The modern day Pharisees are here.
Canon 287: Clerics are not to have an active part in political parties.
The #Catholic #Church can be fined and shut down by #Democrat mandates, & all you want is that priests keep their mouths shut?
Over my dead body, you hypocrites.
This is not the response of charity. I do not want to associate motives on Frank Pavone. I do not know why he is so monochromatically focused on only the issue of abortion. It is the most important issue, the preeminent issue. But we cannot fight evil by hurling insults at people for asking good questions. And we cannot make Catholicism what we want it to be. Pavone, in this tweet, is mocking Canon Law! That should give anyone who cares about the Church cause for concern.
He also tweeted that he would hear the confession of a Catholic who votes Democrat, “but we are trained that in the absence of repentance, absolution has to be withheld.” These statement come after repeated expletive-laden personal attacks on Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.
Dismissal from the Clerical State
Canon Law exists for the salvation of souls. To disregard Canon Law is to disregard care for souls. To be willfully and persistently disobedient to one’s bishop is wrong; for a priest, this is even more so wrong.
On November 9, 2022, with no possibility of appeal, Frank Pavone was dismissed from the clerical state (“laicized”) by the Dicastery for the Clergy (previously called Congregation for the Clergy). As CNA reports it:
“Father Frank Pavone, a well-known pro-life activist and national director of the organization Priests for Life, has been dismissed from the clerical state for ‘blasphemous communications on social media’ and ‘persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop,’ CNA has learned.”
This was confirmed in a letter from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, to the U.S. bishops. A separate statement, attached to the letter, also states that:
“Father Pavone was given ample opportunity to defend himself in the canonical proceedings, and he was also given multiple opportunities to submit himself to the authority of his diocesan bishop. It was determined that Father Pavone had no reasonable justification for his actions.”
On December 17, 2022, Pavone told CNA that he had not been notified about the Vatican’s judgment. He said, “How did CNA learn about this before I did?” In another email he said that CNA’s inquiry was “the very first communication that came to me about this.” I find this exceedingly hard to believe in 2022. I find it likely that there were calls made, voicemails left, letters sent, emails sent, and the like. But, here, as usual, we have to trust his word on the matter. This is something I am not willing to press too hard.
Why Was Frank Pavone Laicized?
Why was Frank Pavone dismissed from the clerical state? I don’t know. And neither do you.
Was there a history of problems, long before being involved with the Trump campaign? Absolutely.
Are there other lay people and priests who should be subject to disciplinary action? Yes, there are. But let’s not bring them into the conversation of Frank Pavone.
Instead, let us try to stick to the facts, learn what we can for our own lives, and pray fervently for our priests, bishops, fellow lay folks, and for Mr. Frank Pavone.
NOTE: This story is ongoing. I have covered some of the historical events leading up to Pavone’s dismissal from the clerical state, reported on December 17, 2022. I do not intend to update it or pursue what happens next here on Substack. I highly recommend keeping an eye on CNA or the Pillar for new information. Thanks for reading!