Editor’s Note: It is with a heavy heart that The Interim reports on the laicization of Frank Pavone and the fallout from the announcement in December. But as the pro-life paper of record, we have a duty to factually report about the events that transpired before and after the announcement of the laicization of a major international pro-life figure.
On Dec. 17, the Catholic News Agency (CAN) reported that Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, was laicized – dismissed from the priesthood – for “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop” according to a Dec. 13 letter from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S. Archbishop Pierre did not state what constituted the blasphemy nor the disobedience.
The letter was released publicly because “Father Pavone was a very public and high-profile figure associated with the Right to Life Movement in the U.S.” and that, “his dismissal from the clerical state may, therefore, be a matter of interest among the faithful.”
Archbishop Pierre’s notification explained, “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.” He added, “It was determined that Father Pavone had no reasonable justification for his actions.”
Pavone denied knowledge of the proceedings against him, saying the first he heard of them was when contacted by the CNA. He later admitted to the news service, he might have missed the laicization notice, but he has long maintained the process was unfair.
In a communication to supporters dated Dec. 18, Pavone said, “What took so long? This has been the plan of some of the bishops for many years.” He charged that many bishops were opposed or embarrassed by his pro-life work and that the Vatican railroaded him, failing to give Pavone a chance to defend himself.
He explained in his letter that his pro-life ministry justified his refusal to accept other assignments from his local bishop(s). Pavone told CNA, “They just don’t like the work I’m doing for these babies.”
Phil Lawler, former editor of Catholic World Report, wrote in CatholicCulture.com, “That argument is disingenuous at best” as “many other priests have been outspoken in their defense of the unborn, without causing any such conflicts with their superiors.”
The conservative Catholic publication The Pillar reported that the Dicastery for the Clergy provides the Pope with the authority to laicize a priest in an extrajudicial process that does not allow for a formal trial in front of a tribunal of judges. Canon lawyer Fr. Gerald Murray of the Archdiocese of New York explained that only the Pope can issue a decision to laicize a priest, “against which there is no possible appeal.”
Pavone began Priests for Life in 1993 when Cardinal John O’Connor granted his request to work full-time to save the preborn from abortion. Pavone said in response to his laicization, “that has been my consistent – and only – request of Church authority: allow me to devote my life and ministry to saving the unborn. That has not changed in any way.”
Alongside his work with Priests for Life, Pavone was politically active, including having formal roles in the 2016 Donald Trump campaign and advising Catholics for Trump in 2020. He serves two ministries that work with post-abortive women, Rachel’s Vineyard and Silent No More. He has also worked with former abortionist Bernard Nathanson, former Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson, and Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade) in their pro-life work and conversions to Catholicism.
Pavone clashed with Amarillo (Texas) Bishop Patrick Zurek, where Pavone was based, and that Bishop Zurek petitioned the Vatican for his laicization.
Bishop Zurek and his predecessor Bishop John Yanta had differences of opinion with Pavone about the then-priest’s role in Priests for Life, a secular organization with no formal ties to the Catholic Church. Bishops Zurek and Yanta both wanted Pavone to take diocesan assignments. In 2014, Bishop Zurek ordered Pavone to cease “any form of broadcast” in media or social media. On another occasion, Bishop Zurek wrote to Pavone: “You have no respect for me, my office, my authority, my oversight. …I have been dealing with your disobedience and scandalous behavior for years. There is nothing more I can do with you.”
Bishop Zurek also opposed Pavone’s outspoken position denying the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians. Bishop Zurek signed a letter to his brother bishops in 2021 arguing against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a statement clearly stating pro-abortion Catholic politicians should not receive Holy Communion.
The Coalition for Canceled Priests released a statement in the wake of Pavone’s dismissal, with its unequivocal support of Pavone: “This latest and very extreme level of cancellation is the culmination of a decade long attempt to silence Fr. Pavone.”
LifeSiteNews reported that Pavone is “arguably the most outspoken Catholic cleric in defense of the unborn” and that his dismissal shocked pro-life leaders. LifeSiteNews collected more than 45,000 signatures in a petition insisting that “Fr. Frank Pavone’s laicization must be overturned.” They urged all Catholics and pro-lifers to “stand by Fr. Pavone” and against “This outrageous attack on the pro-life movement.”
Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood staffer turned pro-life activist, said she was mentored by Pavone during her conversion to Catholicism and called him “one of the most dedicated pro-life warriors” she knew. She noted other priests have openly supported causes opposing Catholic Church moral teaching, but they remain priests in good standing, specifically citing Fr. James Martin, who supports same-sex “marriage.”
Reggie Littlejohn, president of pro-life organization Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, said Pavone, “is one of the finest fruits of the Catholic Church and deserves its support in defending a key teaching about the sanctity of life.”
Yet some conservative, pro-life Catholics were critical. Phil Lawler said that laicization was “overdue.” Acknowledging that “many other priests’ “conduct has been far more egregious” in its defiance of Catholic teaching, and that it is “painful to see a leading figure in the American pro-life movement disciplined,” the Vatican’s defrocking of Pavone “is not an injustice” nor a “surprise.” Lawler noted that “after nearly 15 years of fighting against episcopal authority, years in which he refused to accept his bishops’ directives, Pavone could not have been surprised” by the news of his laicization.
Lawler reminded readers that “other unhappy clerics recognize that on the day of their ordination to the priesthood, when they promised obedience to the ordaining bishop and his successors, they gave away all the high cards in their hand. In a battle with his bishop, the diocesan priest inevitably loses.”
More importantly, Lawler asked, “can a diocesan priest devote his full-time attention to a secular organization?” (By secular, he means outside the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.)
Pavone’s ecclesiastical superior, Bishop Zurek requested he open the organization’s financial books to the diocese in 2011, expressing “deep concerns regarding (Pavone’s) stewardship of the finances of the Priests for Life organization.” Pavone said he answered the prelate’s questions about the organization’s finances, but Bishop Zurek disputes that, saying he “rebuff(ed) my every attempt at calling for financial transparency.” New York Cardinal Edward Egan tried to mediate the dispute, calling for an independent audit of the organization and the appointment of bishops to the group’s board. Pavone refused.
Previously, Pavone moved to establish a religious order, the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, an arm of Priests for Life. It would have been a novel arrangement in which priests would work outside the Catholic hierarchy and operate under a secular authority. Pavone quietly disbanded the work of the new order a few years later; some recruits complained they were being used primarily to fundraise for Priests for Life.
Pavone says, “Some call my refusal to turn away from (pro-life) work ‘disobedience.’ I call it faithfulness.” (No bishop had asked Pavone to cease doing pro-life work, merely that he not be committed to it full-time.)
As for the “blasphemous communications” finding, supporters and critics of Pavone alike point to language that included profanities (“goddam loser Biden”) and the desecration of an altar and preborn victim of abortion when he displayed the body of an aborted fetus on an altar, an image posted by Pavone on his social media accounts. Pavone said the remains were placed on a table used as an altar, not an actual altar, although he celebrated Mass on the table.
Pavone said in his letter, “I want to offer a challenge here to anyone at the Vatican or from the Nuncio’s office who has been involved in this case: Sit down with me for a live on-air broadcast, during which we can walk step by step through the history of what happened here.”
Pavone has accepted the laicization – he no longer uses the honorific Father before his name – but said a future pope could undo Francis’s action.
Although not cited as a reason for Pavone’s laicization, The Pillar has reported that two former employees of Priests for Life in the 1990s and early 2000s have accused Pavone of serial sexual harassment. including stroking their hair and backs, touching their legs, rubbing their shoulders, and, in one case, the suggestion in a hotel room that the female employee “change into something more comfortable.” One accuser claimed Pavone “pinned me against the wall” while caressing her hair. Our Sunday Visitor reported that third woman, who was not one of the two named by The Pillar, received counselling from another priest who was an employee of Priests for Life, after Pavone allegedly harassed her.
Pavone acknowledges he has faced sexual misconduct allegations in the past and dismissed the new stories as “old accusations that contain numerous inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and mistruths.” He said those cases have been “settled”: “my bishop at that time thoroughly investigated these claims and confirmed that I was in good standing and fully suitable for ministry.”
Pavone admitted, “there have been times in my life where I’ve somehow missed the mark and unintentionally made someone feel uncomfortable. I’m sorry to anyone who might have ever taken offense in such moments, and I have always faithfully served the priesthood.”
Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, told The Pillar that pro-life leaders are divided over the allegations against Pavone. “Pro-life leaders have been dismayed by what they’ve heard,” Scheidler said, lamenting: “Some, sadly, are unwilling to ask any tough questions and appear to me all too ready to either dismiss these allegations as either insignificant or too far in the past to care about.” Scheidler admitted, “I don’t know what to think,” although he said Pavone’s response has been unsatisfactory.
Scheilder noted that “Priests For Life runs what they call the world’s largest post-abortion ministry” – Rachel’s Vineyard – and wondered, “How can women trust Priests for Life when these allegations are hanging in the air like this?”
Frank Pavone remains national director of Priests for Life and his board has expressed it full support of the former priest.