Father Frank Pavone, one of the country’s most visible and vocal opponents of abortion, has been suspended from active ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas. CNS photo by Bob Roller

Father Frank Pavone, one of the country’s best-known opponents of abortion, says he is “baffled” with his bishop’s recent decision to recall him to his home Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, to answer questions about his pro-life organization’s finances. 

“Everything the bishop has ever asked for, we have sent, even including our entire check register. Every question he’s ever had, we’ve answered. Why he still has questions, or why he would say we withhold information, is baffling to us,” said Father Pavone, national director of the New York-based Priests for Life

Father Pavone told Our Sunday Visitor he had “no idea” how long his stay in Amarillo would be. He said he was considering backup plans in the event that he and the bishop cannot reach an understanding. 

“Yes, there are a lot of options and we’ll use all the ones we need to, including starting a religious community. The pro-life work of the Church is important enough for such efforts,” Father Pavone told OSV. 

‘Persistent concerns’

On Sept. 9, Bishop Patrick Zurek wrote a letter to the country’s bishops — which he subsequently released to the public — explaining his decision to “suspend” the high-profile priest from public ministry outside the diocese. He cited “persistent questions and concerns” about the handling of PFL money and said the priest had grown egotistical and dismissive of his promise to obey his bishop. 

Father Pavone said he did not understand the bishop’s complaints. He said that Priests for Life, and its affiliated organizations, Missionaries of the Gospel of Life and Rachel’s Vineyard, have been “completely transparent,” and added that he has submitted paperwork every time the bishop requested it. 

“[The bishop] requested dates for me to spend in the diocese. I sent the dates. Then he said I ignored the request,” Father Pavone said. 

The bishop’s letter immediately generated a significant amount of publicity in Catholic and general news media outlets, and prompted several pro-life organizations to issue statements supporting Father Pavone, who became Priests for Life’s first full-time director in 1993 and has since traveled the country, giving speeches, taping television shows and spearheading various anti-abortion initiatives. 

The PFL board of directors released a statement saying the organization was “proud to be guided by the leadership” of Father Pavone, and expressing confidence he could “resolve any understandings” with Church leaders. 

The National Pro Life Religious Council said it “fully supports Father Pavone’s efforts to continue his vital and life-saving ministry with Priests for Life in a full-time capacity.” The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an organization that Father Pavone previously served on the board of directors, released a statement threatening public protests at Amarillo parishes and diocesan facilities.

‘Strong personalities’

A few days after the bishop’s letter, Msgr. Harold Waldow, the Amarillo diocese’s vicar of clergy, sent a letter to Priests for Life, clarifying that Pavone remained “a priest in good standing” while adding that the bishop’s letter did not mean that Father Pavone was being accused of any wrongdoing. 

Msgr. Waldow told the daily Amarillo Globe-News that Father Pavone had been “very positive” in his response to the bishop’s inquiry, and added that Father Pavone and Bishop Zurek were both “very strong personalities.” 

However, Msgr. Waldow said “many other bishops” shared concerns about Father Pavone’s independent oversight of Priests for Life. 

According to IRS tax filings for 2008, the most recent year for which information was available, Priests for Life collected $10.9 million in contributions and grants, while paying $2.7 million in salaries. The highest compensated person was Anthony DeStefano, the vice chairman of the organization’s board of directors, who was paid $162,253 in compensation, plus an additional $30,000 in reportable compensation from “related organization,” which were not disclosed. 

Priests for Life’s executive director, Janet Morana, earned $95,394. Father Pavone did not collect a salary. He told OSV that his travel expenses are covered by the groups that invite him to speak. 

Poor marks

Outside agencies that rate nonprofits have not given high marks for Priests for Life. Charity Navigator, one of the country’s largest independent non-profit evaluators, gave Priests for Life an efficiency rating of 26.39 percent, which worked out to slightly more than one out of four stars on its scale. 

The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, a voluntary program which rates charities, warned donors about a possible “lack of commitment to transparency” because Priests for Life had not responded to its written requests for information in order for the bureau to evaluate the organization in relation to its standards for charity accountability. 

Father Pavone maintained that Priests for Life has been transparent, and said no other bishops who have received the organization’s financial paperwork have raised any suspicions that Bishop Zurek voiced. 

However, Father Pavone’s handling of the situation — issuing public statements challenging his bishop’s concerns and vowing to continue his pro-life work, even if it means founding his own order — has generated criticism in some corners. 

Canon lawyer Edward Peters wrote on his blog that Father Pavone was demonstrating a “deficient understanding” of the priesthood in saying that his primary mission was in the pro-life cause (see sidebar). 

“[Father] Pavone’s characterization of the purpose of his ‘visit’, namely, to ‘work things out’, is not the language of a diocesan priest committed to serving the people of God under the direction of the local bishop, but rather, of a man who wants to settle a few annoying details with a supervisor so he can get back to his own project,” wrote Peters. 

On Father Pavone’s public Facebook page, hundreds of supporters continue to post words of encouragement, in many cases openly siding with him against Bishop Zurek. 

Father Pavone is also signaling that he has no intention of backing down. He continues to post pro-life homilies and writings on his Facebook page. 

“Saving lives takes precedence over obeying orders,” he said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.