Priests for Life’s Father Pavone looking for new church home

There’s been tremendous interest this week in the fate of Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life.

As I wrote a few days ago, the bishop of Amarillo, Texas, has called Pavone away from PFL — questioning both the organization’s finances and Pavone’s obedience.

Today, PFL released a letter from the vicar of clergy in Amarillo stating that Pavone is a priest in good standing and has not been accused of malfeasance or wrong doing.

It sure seems that the toothpaste is out of the tube on this one. Bishop Patrick J. Zurek, in a letter to his fellow bishops across the country, wrote of Pavone that he needed “to safeguard his priestly ministry, to which I am obligated as his father, and to help the Church avoid any scandal due to the national scope of the PFL’s work.”

Apparently, at a press conference yesterday in Amarillo, Pavone said he is likely to leave the diocese and seek incardination elsewhere. Pavone already left the Archdiocese of New York after Cardinal Egan sought to have him serve in a parish.

What bishop will want to take Pavone now? We’ll see.

Not surprisingly, people have very strong opinions about Pavone. Some feel that his anti-abortion work is above reproach and that it is a crime to divorce Pavone from his ministry. Others feel that he is a priest adrift, removed from his vow of obedience, and needs to be reigned in.

In my previous post, by the way, I included Pavone’s own statement to me that some see him as a “loose cannon.” Except I banged it out as “loose canon,” which a reader described as “too cute.”It was unintentional, I assure you. But “loose canon” really is kind of cute.

Father Frank Pavone suspended from Priests for Life by his bishop

Last year, I wrote something of a profile of Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life and one of the main anti-abortion leaders in the country.

He grew up in Port Chester, so I had long wanted to write something about his upbringing and how he became the Culture Warrior that he is today. The only place I can find the story right now is the Priests for Life website.

I interviewed Pavone at his parents’ home, across the street from Port Chester H.S. We talked for a long time about all sorts of things, including the perception that he put his Priests for Life ministry ahead of his obedience to his bishop.

You might remember that Pavone was a New York priest who left the archdiocese in 1994 2001 after Cardinal Egan asked him to serve a parish. Pavone affiliated with the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, where the bishop supposedly gave him freedom to continue on the road doing Priests for Life work.

Pavone told me that he knew he was sometimes seen as “independent operative, a loose cannon.”

I bring this up because of a bizarre, even stunning conflict that has arisen between Pavone and Amarillo Bishop Patrick Zurek.

Zurek has apparently called Pavone to Texas and suspended him from any ministry outside the diocese. According to a letter to his brother bishops, Zurek is concerned about the finances of Priests for Life.

He writes: “The PFL has become a business that is quite lucrative which provides Father Pavone with financial independence from all legitimate ecclesiastical oversight. There have been persistent question and concerns by clergy and laity regarding the transactions of millions of dollars of donations to the PFL from whom the donors have a rightful expectation that the monies are being used prudently.”

Serious stuff.

Zurek also questions Pavone’s obedience: “I would venture to say that the supreme importance that he has attributed to his PFL ministry and the reductionist attitude toward the diocesan priesthood has inflated his ego with a sense of self-importance and self-determination. This attitude has strained his relationship with me and has give me the impression that I cannot invoke obedience with him because he is famous. It is my desire to help him readjust his priestly bearing through spiritual and theological renewal in order to recapture that essential priestly hallmark of respect and obedience.”

Pavone has this afternoon released a statement. Pavone writes that he plans to visit Texas, but is appealing Zurek’s actions to the Vatican.

Pavone insists that Priests for Life’s finances are on the level and that he chooses to live a life of poverty (which, as a diocesan priest, he does not have to).

Pavone writes: ““I want to be clear that I do not harbor any ill will towards the Bishop of Amarillo, nor do I foster suspicions about his motives. I am merely confused by his actions. It is impossible for me to believe that there is no place in the Church for priests to exercise full-time ministry in the service of the unborn. We do it for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the imprisoned. But where in the Church is the place where a priest can exercise the same kind of full-time ministry for the children in the womb? That is the question that is at the heart of my own calling.”

Wow. How will this play out?

When I spoke with Pavone, I asked him about his relationship with the bishops. He said: “Many bishops are risk-adverse. We can take on projects they might see as too political. They can say ‘amen’ to us, but not have to answer for what we do.”

Zurek, apparently, is not risk adverse.

At the Pavone house

Back when I was covering religion full-time, I had a list of stories I hoped to do when I could get to them.

One of them had to do with Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life, one of the country’s most influential anti-abortion groups. It came to my attention a few years ago that Pavone is from Port Chester, that he has family there and that he returns fairly often.

I thought it could make a good story if I was to write about Pavone’s Port Chester roots — sort of how he became the man, priest and activist he is today.

tjndc5-5t3jjlspyfp1fofpw22b_layoutI actually contacted Priests for Life several times over the years. They agreed that it was a good idea, but the scheduling never came together.

But then it did. A couple of months ago, someone I know was able to set things up. So I visited Pavone at his parents’ home in Port Chester not long ago.

It was his home from the age of 4 until he went to college. He does return often and usually preaches on Christmas and Easter at Corpus Christi Church, a Salesian parish in Port Chester where Pavone’s parents are still parishioners.

I talked to Pavone at length in his parents’ living room, where he would do his studies on the floor during his years as a very successful Port Chester pupil. He graduated from Port Chester High School, across the street from the family home, a year earlier than his class (’76 instead of ’77) and was the valedictorian.

My article is up today.

I know from experience that writing about abortion — any issue, any development, any person involved — will provoke passionate responses. People on one side of the debate or the other will inevitably not like what I write.

I have’t read the comments on yet, but I have received a bunch of emails. In general, people who support abortion rights would have preferred that I not write about Frank Pavone. Several have written that they intensely dislike his views and methods of activism and that I should not have presented him as a mainstream, or even a rational, figure.

That’s okay. I did not write the article to “support” Pavone’s views or work, but to flesh out the local roots of an important and interesting figure who is a major player in the nation’s culture wars.

I’ve written in the same way about activists who support abortion rights.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Pavone’s parents, Marion and Joseph, were as tickled by their son’s success as any parents are when their kids “make it” in their chosen field. As you might expect, they see him as a hero and don’t understand why others might oppose their son and not wish him well.

Marion Pavone told me that she reads the comments — good and bad — that people write on Pavone’s blog.

“You tend to ignore the negative,” she said. “But on his blog, you see the threats, people wishing him dead.”

Father Frank, meanwhile, not only shrugs off any criticism, but kind of relishes it. He is a true “culture warrior” who enjoys mixing it up with the other side.

Because he is certain he is right.

I prodded Pavone to talk about people who support abortion rights. Who are they? Why do they believe what they do? Do you think they are crazy? What gives?

He told me: “Even those who call themselves pro-choice are more pro-life than they realize. They are usually not aware that the policy in this country is that abortion is available for all nine months of pregnancy. They’re often in favor of abortion in cases of rape or incest, not as birth control.”

But, I said, a lot of really smart people know plenty about abortion law and policy and still support abortion rights. What about them?

He said: “It comes down to a world view. Some have come up with reasoning that says you have to permit this. But if, in fact, you believe that circumstances take precedence over innocent human life, you have over-thought it. Certain people, no matter the arguments or evidence, will remain in that camp. But similar reasoning can be applied to you or someone else when you don’t want it to.”