Beliefs

After a year of exile, anti-abortion priest Frank Pavone is back with eyes set on Obama, bishops

RNS photo by David Gibson

NEW YORK (RNS) A year ago, the Rev. Frank Pavone was facing an existential crisis in the unlikeliest of places.

A year ago, the Rev. Frank Pavone was facing an unexpected existential crisis, confined by his bishop to a diocese in the Texas panhandle and fighting accusations of financial mismanagement. Now Pavone is back, with a new mission: defeating Barack Obama and making his anti-abortion group answerable only to Rome.

A year ago, the Rev. Frank Pavone was facing an unexpected existential crisis, confined by his bishop to a diocese in the Texas panhandle and fighting accusations of financial mismanagement. Now Pavone is back, with a new mission: defeating Barack Obama and making his anti-abortion group answerable only to Rome.

The longtime head of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, Pavone had been confined to the Diocese of Amarillo by his bishop, Patrick J. Zurek, who sent a letter to every other U.S. bishop declaring that he had so many concerns about the group’s $10 million budget that Pavone shouldn’t be trusted with donors’ money.

Pavone’s backers were stunned, and many stopped giving, which only exacerbated the problems that helped get Priests for Life into trouble in the first place. Pavone also couldn’t go on the road to reassure funders and drum up desperately needed cash.

Instead, the New York-born priest was stuck in a convent in the Texas panhandle where he served as chaplain to an order of nuns in a place called Prayer Town, a virtual prisoner in a war of words with Zurek, who had blasted his “incorrigible defiance of my legitimate authority as his bishop.”

Pavone used Skype to run the Priests for Life headquarters in Staten Island and deployed social media to rally donors, counter Zurek’s charges, and lobby Rome to take action.

His only other weapon was a shovel to use against snakes that might slither into his room. None did, but he did find a scorpion in his bed one night.

Today, however, everything has changed. Pavone is a free man, thoroughly enjoying a measure of redemption, and then some.

“There’s been a turning of a corner both in terms of reputation and giving,” Pavone, 53, said with satisfaction as he tucked into a plate of shrimp parmesan during a recent lunch in suburban Staten Island, around the corner from the nondescript two-story building that is home to Priests for Life. “The donations are coming in quite steadily.”

A year ago, the Rev. Frank Pavone was facing an unexpected existential crisis, confined by his bishop to a diocese in the Texas panhandle and fighting accusations of financial mismanagement. Now Pavone is back, with a new mission: defeating Barack Obama and making his anti-abortion group answerable only to Rome.

A year ago, the Rev. Frank Pavone was facing an unexpected existential crisis, confined by his bishop to a diocese in the Texas panhandle and fighting accusations of financial mismanagement. Now Pavone is back, with a new mission: defeating Barack Obama and making his anti-abortion group answerable only to Rome.

Pavone is using some of that money to jump into the political fray, which is familiar terrain for this veteran culture warrior. The corridors of Priests for Life’s offices are lined with photos of Pavone and his staff with conservative luminaries past and present: Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John McCain, Gary Bauer, Clarence Thomas and the late Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms. Portraits of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II fill any blank wall space.

Earlier this month Pavone issued a voter guide that highlights Mitt Romney’s perceived strengths over President Barack Obama. With characteristic brio, Pavone calls churches that do not distribute such guides “cowardly.”

Pavone is also a regular on the conservative Catholic cable network EWTN, where he talks politics as much as piety, and he has sued the White House over the controversial birth control health insurance mandate. In August, anti-abortion Republicans in the House, led by Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Christopher Smith, R-N.J., convened a special session one evening to honor Pavone on PFL’s 20th anniversary.

The presidential campaign has not only provided Pavone with a platform to re-establish his viability, but – as for many other groups on both sides – it is also a powerful tool for motivating much-needed donors. 

Most important, Pavone said he may soon be free of any bishop's oversight, working with the Vatican to find a way to reinvent PFL as a special ministry that would report directly to Rome.

“Priests for Life has outgrown its canonical structure” as a group that answers to a diocesan bishop, he said. “I’ve always been focused on the work itself, and that work continues to grow.”

Indeed, the lesson of Pavone’s rehabilitation may be that in today's Catholic Church, it helps to have friends in high places, and to be battling on an issue – abortion – that is such a priority for Rome, especially during a critical presidential race. Whatever PFL’s financial woes, keeping Pavone in business trumped the usual niceties of ecclesiastical life.

That suits Pavone just fine. Ever since he took over Priests for Life 20 years ago, Pavone’s intensity and independence – many use stronger adjectives – have often wound up irritating his local bishop. (Pavone has no formal attachment to the Archdiocese of New York other than being allowed to work in Staten Island, but he recently criticized New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan for inviting Obama to the upcoming Al Smith Dinner for charity, calling it a “scandal.”)

Pavone is unapologetic.

“Some people have called me too aggressive. Well, too bad.” The fight against abortion is too important to worry about ruffling feathers, he said, and the reality is that church efforts to combat abortion are too tame – the hierarchy’s deeds don’t match their words. And that sends the wrong message.

“There can be heated debate. There can be loyal opposition. That is how the church grows,” he said. “The solution is not to lock me up in some convent. The solution is to sit down at the table like adults.”

Pavone came to Amarillo from New York in 2005 because he and then-Cardinal Edward Egan did not get along. Amarillo’s bishop at the time promised him the freedom to pursue his anti-abortion ministry as he liked.

But Pavone’s grand plans to build a $130 million seminary in Amarillo quickly went south. When Zurek was installed as the new bishop in 2008, he demanded a full accounting of Pavone’s budget, one of the largest among anti-abortion groups in the U.S. Last September, tensions came to a head after Zurek said Pavone was not cooperating.

Documents that emerged in the wake of Zurek’s criticisms showed that PFL was running a $1.4 million deficit despite collecting at least $10 million a year, and it was burning through its reserves. Key Internal Revenue Service statements had not been filed, the group had been fined in Pennsylvania for soliciting donations without authorization, and hundreds of thousands of dollars had been shifted among various PFL entities.

It was a mess, and it led to what Pavone calls his “exile in Amarillo.”

Pavone’s Twitter feed exploded with indignation at the restrictions, and he used it to relay expressions of support from top churchmen from around the world. Even as some anti-abortion activists rebuked Pavone for being insubordinate, others launched a “Free Father Frank” campaign and started protesting at Amarillo churches. One group flew a banner over the city with photos of aborted fetuses and an appeal to let Pavone continue to fight against abortion rights.

“There is one moral imperative for all of us right now, towering above any other: ending the holocaust of abortion,” Pavone tweeted at the height of the standoff with Zurek.

Pavone appealed Zurek’s restrictions to Rome and in May the Vatican ruled that he was a priest in good standing and that he could travel freely, with Zurek’s permission. The bishop hasn’t told him otherwise, Pavone said, and seems unlikely to do so given Pavone's connections.

In recent months the Vatican has co-sponsored a conference in Rome with Priests for Life, and Pavone has been circulating a letter attesting to his bona fides that is signed by prominent cardinals and bishops. The Vatican “is very supportive of Priests for Life,” Pavone said.

Zurek’s office did not respond to several requests for a comment.

What Rome can’t do, however, is make Pavone’s financial troubles go away.

In May, Pavone issued an urgent appeal to raise more than $600,000 in two weeks in order to pay bills that were months overdue, and he continues to send out nail-biting pleas for cash, warning that if donors don’t open their wallets immediately, PFL will have to cut back on “several vital election-related projects – and put the lives of millions of our unborn brothers and sisters at risk.”

Pavone is vague about the state of his group’s balance sheet in those appeals, and provided few other details over lunch. He conceded that funding is down to about $10 million a year from a high of $12 million two years ago, and that the conflict with Zurek led to a 10 percent drop-off in contributions.

But he said PFL is rebounding, and he is making plans to add staff. He says he hopes to break even this year, though he won’t know the exact balance sheet until his accountants file the group’s tax statements in November.

The financial problems that led to his exile last year he chalked up to paperwork “slipping through the cracks.” Pavone himself doesn’t understand the “technicalities,” he said, but guaranteed that his team “is on top of all of these things” and everything has been, or will be, straightened out.

In any event, Pavone says he has bigger things to worry about, and he is not going to let money or hierarchical sensitivities slow him down.

“The church is a big family. Families are going to have disputes, even with those who are in charge,” he said. “We should not be afraid of that.”

KRE/AMB END GIBSON
 

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

25 Comments

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  • I praise the living God that Fr. Frank is back in action again against abortion. He is truly a sign of great courage to me in a blind and deaf world that wants to continue to kill babies. I have seven wonderful grandchildren and one of the way. They are gifts and a reminder to me always of Gods most precious creation. May God continue to Bless Fr. Frank in his mission to save our most precious babies, and May Abba our loving father forgive a world that has destroyed so many precious lives. My prayers continue every day to end abortion and I welcome the rally’s against them and join when I can to help in this fight. God Bless Fr. Frank Karin

  • We need Father Pavone to be active in the Priests for Life office if we are going to be able to win this election for the unborn. We are so happy that he is going to be back in his office and have been praying for that to happen. God has blessed Father Pavone with the courage and energy to help us save the babies. Thank God!

  • 25 million WOMEN KILLED since Row V Wade.

    If you consider that “against women” you are blind and unable to see.

  • How is defending innocent human life against intentional killing, against women?
    This administration wants to eliminate any rational restrictions against abortion at any age, for any reason, including abortions up to the time of birth, and sex selection abortions which usually target little girls. Tell me how that is against women? Read some of the testimonies from women (and men) as to how abortion wrecked their lives by searching for the “Silent No More” campaign. Look at the facts, look at the truth. Don’t believe the brain washing propaganda of those whose main agenda is population control through abortion, sterilization of women, etc. and about making money from women facing difficult decisions when having an unplanned pregnancy. You will find pro-lfe people voluntarily staffing pregnancy centers to help & support women in making a decision which is consistent with the noblest inclinations of what it means to be a human, a woman and a mother. Their services and love are offered for free. Whereas at those clinics run by Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion organizations, they will direct you and then charge you to do what is most contrary to your nature, to kill your own child. Which side is pro-woman, the one that persuades you to do what is most contrary to your nature as a human, as a woman, and as a mother? Or the one which encourages you to do the right thing, which is in harmony with your nature as a compassionate, loving human being, woman and mother?

  • OBAMA CARE BELONGS TO HELL. I AM A PRO-LIFE PHYSICIAN. I HAVE RESEARCHED THE HEALTHCARE FROM 1945 TO DATE CONGRESSIONAL RECORDS. I HAVE WRITTEN FOUR BOOKS ON HEALTHCARE. ” DOCTORS’ UNDER FIRE, SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR HMO PATIENTS, THE TRUTH BEHIND THE MALPRACTICE CRISIS. SCALES OF JUSTICE, THE WILDERNESS OF HEALTHCARE AND SOCIETY’S MORAL CONSCIENCE. I ALL THOSE HEALTHCARE COSTS KEPT ON INCREASING. THE ONLY WAY TO SAVE COSTS IS TO KILL THE MOST DEFENSELESS OF THEM ALL THE UNBORN BABIES, THE DISABLED, THE MENTALLY ILL,, THE ELDERLY PEOPLE IN THE NURSING HOME AND HOSPICE. OBAMA CARE BY CONGRESS WITHOUT ANY EXAMINATION OF PREVIOUS LAWS THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN AMENDED.
    THE AMENDMENT OF THE HMO ACT WHICH GAVE PHYSICIANS LICENSE TO DENY CARE, MUTILATE PATIENTS AND KILL PATIENTS IN EXCHANGE FOR A BONUS. THE PRIMARY DOCTOR MAKES MORE MONEY IF HE DOES NOT DO TESTINGS OR REFER PATIENTS TO SPECIALISTS.
    THE AMENDMENT OF THE MCARAN FERGUSON ACT WHICH WAS PASSED IN 1948, WHICH PROTECTS INSURANCE COMPANIES FROM ANTITRUST LAWSUITS, SET THEIR FEES, CONTROL THE DOCTORS AND TREATMENT< WITHOUT ANY ACCOUNTABILITY. MEDICARE WAS SUCCESSFUL, ELDERLY PEOPLE ARE LIVING LONGER. THE POLITICIANS WHO PASSED THIS LAW DID NOT PUT ANY SAFEGUARD: WHAT SHOULD WE DO, IF IT IS SUCCESSFUL.. MORE IMPORTANTLY, THE POLITICIANS HAVE BEEN RAIDING MEDICARE SINCE THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION AND HE ALSO GIFTED US THE HMO ACT FROM HELL. AS A DIRECT RESULT OF THE HMO ACT MANY UNNECESSARY DEATHS, INJURIES HAD OCCURRED CAUSING MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CRISIS. OBAMA CARE IS ALSO DISCRIMINATORY TO PRO-LIFE PHYSICIANS AND ALL CHRISTIANS WHO BELIEVE IN THE SANCTITY OF LIFE . HE HATES THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND HE IS DETERMINED TO BANKRUPT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. WHY IS HE PUSHING THE GENERIC DRUGS. MOST GENERIC DRUGS DON'T WORK. PATIENTS FEEL IT.THERE SHOULD BE TRANSPARENCY IN THE USE OF GENERIC DRUGS LABELING: COUNTRY WHERE THEY ARE MANUFACTURED: WHAT IS THE ACTIVE INGREDIENTS, THE FILLERS, DATE THE GENERIC DRUGS WERE MANUFACTURED AND EXPIRATION DATE. THE GOVERNMENT DOES NOT HAVE TO CUT MEDICARE.

  • We have watched all of the problems for Father Pavone and pray for his exoneration and also that he continue to have the strength to continue the fight against abortion. If you have the impression that Father Frank is not for women’s rights, you need to think again. The liberal people really don’t realize that abortion not only kills babies but sometimes the mother as well. Where is their women’s rights attitude with that!

    Thank GOD for your freedom Father Frank.

    Nick

  • ALL THE GOVERNMENT HAS TO DO IS MANDATORY REMOVAL OF THE FOLLOWING

    INGREDIENTS IN 90% OF FOOD IINGREDIENTS: HIGH FRUCTOSE, CORN SYRUP AND SUCRALASE, ASPARTAME ETC. THESE FOOD INGREDIENTS CAUSE HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, DIABETES, PANCREATITIS, GOUT, OBESITY AND MAKES ARTHRITIS WORSE.
    TRANSPARENCY IN THE USE OF CANCER DRUGS EXPLAINING TO PATIENTS THE SIDE EFFECTS AND ANTICIPATED LONG TERM EFFECTS ON PATIENTS HEALTH..
    WHY ARE ALL THESE POLITICIANS INCLUDING THE UNION EXEMPTED FROM THIS LAW.IN 2004, WHEN HE WAS CAMPAIGNING IN OHIO, HE TOLD ONE ATTENDEE, THAT EVERY CITIZEN WILL HAVE THE SAME INSURANCE AS THE MEMBERS OF CONGRESS BECAUSE TAXPAYERS PAY FOR IT. WHY ARE TAXPAYERS PAYING FOR ABORTION ???. IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE A PRIVATE MATTER. STOP THE FUNDING OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD , INSTEAD FEED THE HUNGRY AND GIVE HOUSING TO THE DISABLED AND THE HOMELESS.
    .

  • I really missed Father Pavone, and I really hope he can have mass and preach on EWTN again and again!!!! Yes, we need Father Corapi back, and now Father Groshel as well back on EWTN to be running full speed ahead!!!!!!!!!

  • It really doesn’t seem like Fr. Pavone has learned anything in his “year of exile.” The financial irregularities of PFL were substantial and worrisome. His outspoken disregard for his bishop’s authority bordered on scandalous. His encouragement of supporters in his defense led to several acts and interviews of stupidity.

    One would hope that Fr Pavone would be expressing gratitude to the bishop and the rest of the PFL team for the year, for their intentions and hard work. Instead, he is crowing about being too big to be under authority. We know which way this goes when priests believe they are too important for canonical structure.

    I am more worried about PFL than I was a year ago.

  • Oct. 17th: Although I truly appreciate all the good work Fr. Pavone has done, I am – I don’t know how to explain this…I’m just not sure anymore. First of all, Fr. Pavone’s fans inundated the property of his Bishop demanding over and over and over that the Bishop “free” Fr. Pavone and Fr. Pavone did not speak out against this. Then, while Fr. Pavone was “unfree”, he sent out massive – massive – amounts of e-mails demanding money, large sums of money, as large an amount as possible, or babies would die – I used to feel sick when I received these – long e-mails demanding many times in each e-mail that Fr. Pavone be given large, very large sums of money. Many who were at the March for Life in Washington spoke about this, all having had received these harrassing e-mails and all were deeply confused and upset. I will pray for Fr. Pavone and I wish him well but I will never given any mone to him…large or small. I know this may upset all who commented here but – well, I wish I could feel differently but I just can’t…I do and will continue to work for life – always, but I simply cannot contribute to Fr. Pavone – I still receive those e-mails. I used to respond but no more…still, I wish him well.

  • Oct. 17th…and it wasn’t just the constant demands for money…it was the fact that Fr. Pavone used social media to attack his Bishop – his legitimate authority. Those saints who were reprimanded by their authorities and, often, silenced, did not stir people up against the person in authority, they submitted in humble silence – think Padre Pio. Think St. Therese Lisieux, the Little Flower…Fr. Pavone stirred up division while trying to turn people against his Bishop…so, again, I pray and I try to understand, but I just can’t…

  • Financial irregularities are serious and must be dealt with promptly and fully. Otherwise, the reputation of the movement is permanently damaged. A good outside accounting firm can handle these problems.

  • Dear Michael,
    All Catholics are under Canonical Structure by virtue of our Baptism. Father Pavone is working only for PFL to be under a different Canonical Structure, given his recent experience and the wide — perhaps world wide — scope of PFL’s sacred mission. This is a matter for the Vatican to decide and I am sure Father Pavone will be obedient whatever they decide! After all, he did stay in the bishop’ diocese, submitting to his authority!

  • What were the results of investigation into the finances of PFL – can we be assured now that irregularities are actually fixed?

  • Not to worry. If Fr. Pavone gets too uppity, we, the IRS, can do what Rome can’t or won’t.
    20 years in the Federal pen with NO e-mail will shut him up. (can you say Tax Evasion and Mail Fraud?)

  • Fr. Pavone is a cafeteria Catholic who picks and choose which Catholic teachings he wants to follow and which teachings he wants everyone else to follow. He is not doing God’s holy will; he is doing his own will and that is why he got in trouble with his bishop.

  • IRS AGENT; What gives you the right to argue for a tax evasion case against PFL. Are we to assume they had no legal counsel to help them with a 501 3 c Tax exemption status. They have accountants as they reported. Canonically they are not directly under Church Law but are incorporated in California and are based out of NY. Have you or your agents pursued the apparently highly questionable financial activities of some well-known TV and radio Evangelists and their use of donations for homes, aircraft and other expenses? Either way, butt off here where your vain threats are not helpful to the discussion.

  • The ego of the man described in this article is very clear.
    It seems to be Pavone, Uber Alles.
    I don’t detect any humility or sense of obedience.
    There are problems ahead for this priest and PFL should he not get off his high horse.
    Sad, but you can bet on it.
    A.M.D.G.

  • So many priests and bishops, however, none is as loyal as Father Pavone to the unborn babies that are heartlessly ripped from the womb.. Like Mother Teresa , he is about the Lords’ business.
    God bless the pro-life movement with victory!
    Viva Christo Rey!

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