By Shannon Mullen, Jonah McKeown and Joe Bukuras
Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, was notified of his recent laicization, a diocesan official has told CNA, contradicting the ex-priest’s repeated claims that he has not received official notification of the Vatican’s decree dismissing him from the clerical state.
An official with the Amarillo Diocese in Texas, who asked not to be identified by name, told CNA that “the canonical process was followed, including physical and electronic notifications [of his laicization] at their proper time.”
The official’s account is at odds with Pavone’s prior statements to CNA and other media outlets claiming that he has received no such formal notification.
Pavone, who plans to hold a livestreamed press conference Friday ahead of next week’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., provided CNA a different answer Thursday when asked about the diocesan official’s statement.
“I have no idea what they sent me. The communication broke down a long time ago,” he wrote in a Jan. 12 email. “They may indeed have sent something. I simply did not see it.”
CNA broke the news of Pavone’s laicization on Dec. 17, 2022. That day, Pavone said it was the first time he had heard of the Nov. 9, 2022, decree by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy, which cited Pavone’s “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop,” without providing any specific details. The information was contained in a letter that Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, sent to U.S. bishops.
“How did CNA learn about this before I did?” Pavone asked at the time, later adding that CNA’s inquiry was “the very first communication that came to me about this.”
Four days later, in an interview with the YouTube show “Truth, Culture, Life,” Pavone made similar statements when he was asked if he was still a priest.
“I haven’t gotten anything … I can’t show you like a letter or a piece of paper that tells me I’ve been dismissed from the priesthood,” he said. “I don’t have any instructions. I wasn’t told ‘Oh you, you know, you can’t dress like a priest. You can’t be called Father. You can’t say Mass.’ I haven’t been told any of that.” Pavone has made similar statements to other media outlets.
That Pavone, a well-known figure in the pro-life movement for many years with a loyal social media following, would incur such a severe canonical penalty — and then not receive any formal notice of it either from his bishop or the Vatican — further stoked criticism of the Vatican’s action online among Pavone’s many supporters. An online petition calling for his reinstatement to the priesthood has reportedly garnered some 45,000 signatures.
The Amarillo official who spoke to CNA would not clarify when the diocese informed Pavone that he could no longer exercise his priestly functions. But Pavone on Thursday still professed to know nothing about any official notification.
“Well they can say ‘they informed me,’ but that statement alone ignores the entire context and the fact that the communication was abusive, broken, dishonest, for years,” he wrote in an email. “Again, people have to understand, none of this was normal.”
Pavone again referred CNA to a lengthy account he has posted on his website detailing his past conflicts with Amarillo Bishop Patrick Zurek and other Church leaders. Pavone said the conflicts with Zurek reached the point that he asked the diocese not to contact him anymore.
“I told the bishop not to. And the Vatican knew it,” he told CNA.
“This was not a normal relationship. It was abuse. If they say they sent something, they are admitting to violating a very serious, long-standing set of instructions to stop abusing and harassing me,” he said.
“That abuse obviously continues, and therefore our canonical and civil remedies will continue as well,” he added.
Pavone’s conflicts with Bishop Zurek have centered on Priest for Life’s fiscal operations, Pavone’s provocative social media posts and past roles with Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, and Pavone’s livestreamed endorsement of Trump just before the 2016 election when the pro-life activist placed the remains of an aborted baby on an office table many believed to be an altar.
Pavone, for his part, contends that Zurek and others have tried to undermine him and his pro-life ministry over the years because of his outspokenness on the abortion issue and his harsh denunciations of the Democratic Party, which he contends many in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy are reluctant to alienate.
Even the Vatican, however, “realized the relationship and the communication with Amarillo were broken beyond repair,” Pavone wrote in an email Thursday, pointing to permission he received from the Vatican in 2019 to transfer to the Diocese of Colorado Springs, which Zurek refused to allow.
“So no documents were expected to come to ‘me,’” he said, referring to any notification the Amarillo Diocese may have sent him about his laicization.
“The diocese and the Vatican know well how to reach my team,” he added, citing instructions he said he received from Archbishop Pierre, the U.S. nuncio, telling Pavone that he could not officiate at the recent funeral Mass for his father.
Originally a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Pavone, now 63, transferred to the Amarillo Diocese in 2005. He remained incardinated there — meaning he served as a priest under the authority of the local bishop — until his laicization late last year.
While he continued to say Mass online for weeks after the Vatican’s decree, Pavone is now going by “Frank Pavone” on all his social media channels. His profile picture on the different social media channels has changed from a photo of him in his priestly collar and a red Donald Trump-styled “Make America Great Again” hat to different photos of him without the collar. Pavone has said he plans to appeal his case to Pope Francis, and to his successor, if necessary, to be reinstated.
Neither Zurek nor the diocese has issued any public statements on Pavone’s case, though it has posted Pierre’s letter to the bishops on its website, without comment.
The Vatican’s decree has no bearing on the continued operations of Priests for Life, a nonprofit pro-life advocacy organization that relocated from New York to Titusville, Florida, in 2016. Pavone has served as its national director since 1993.
Pavone has circulated a pair of letters he says support his claims that Bishop Zurek was determined to get rid of him.
One of the letters was written in March 2016 by the late Monsignor Harold Waldow, then Amarillo’s vicar of clergy, attesting to the “personal animus” Zurek exhibited toward Pavone.
“I have witnessed occasions at which Bishop Zurek was present for any variety of meetings, such as the presbyteral council, priests’ retreats, Holy Week liturgies, and funeral celebrations, during which Father Pavone’s name would come up, often in the context of positive comment about his ministry within the diocese and elsewhere,” Waldow wrote.
“Bishop Zurek often takes these occasions to reveal the toxic nature of his relationship to Father Pavone. He makes remarks publicly about sensitive matters concerning Father Pavone. On more than one occasion he has seriously misrepresented the actual situation by his remarks,” he continued.
“While there were occasions in which I had to speak with him about sensitive, even unpleasant matters, Father Pavone, in my experience, demonstrated himself to be an effective and generous priest, completely dedicated to the ministry, especially pro-life ministry. I have seen the fruits of his ministry in the diocese and elsewhere on the national and international scene,” Waldow wrote.
“It is in this context that I encouraged Father Pavone to leave the diocese and place himself beyond the impact of Bishop Zurek’s personal animus toward him, so that he could continue to flourish as a priest and that the fruits I had seen personally could continue to mature.”
‘Frank, you are incorrigible’
A second letter, dated May 5, 2017, a little over a year after Waldow’s, is from Zurek. The bishop wrote that he would pursue the priest’s laicization if Pavone didn’t voluntarily submit his own request to be dismissed from the clerical state. Zurich gave Pavone 15 days to respond.
“It is with a heavy heart, but also with absolute frustrations with you that I write this letter,” is how Zurek began. He cited Pavone’s “scandalous behavior,” “involvement in partisan politics,” “persistent disobedience,” and “lack of respect for legitimate ecclesial authority, control, and oversight.”
Much of the letter concerns the 2016 episode dealing with the aborted baby’s remains.
“I have received hundreds of emails, many calls, letters, and notes from Catholics, non-Catholics” and non-Christians, Zurek wrote. “All were outraged, horrified, and deeply scandalized by your actions. The gravest damage has resulted.”
Zurek also cited Pavone’s “partisan rhetoric in favor of one political candidate and party,” which the bishop said was a violation of canon law.
“Frank, you are incorrigible,” Zurek wrote.
“You have no respect for me, my office, my authority, my oversight,” he wrote.
“I have been dealing with your disobedience and scandalous behavior for years. There is nothing more I can do with you,” he wrote.
“In good conscience, I will not even consider allowing you to excardinate to another diocese,” the bishop concluded.
“You would just continue to be disobedient and act scandalously, as you have in your excardination from New York into the Amarillo Diocese,” he wrote, adding: “My predecessor, Bishop Yanta, told me that he deeply regrets incardinating you into the Amarillo Diocese.”
In a statement Thursday, Pavone claimed Zurek never fully investigated the facts of the 2016 incident and misrepresented Pavone’s other alleged infractions.
Pavone said the two letters, taken together, provide a fuller picture of what led up to the Vatican’s drastic measures against him. And he stood by his earlier statements that he has not seen any official notification of his laicization.
“My public comments are consistent with what the official says here. I simply have been saying that I, personally, have not seen the decree, nor has my canonical team,” he said.
“But again, both the diocese and the Vatican knew of my communication to the bishop that any further effort to contact me directly would be considered and treated as harassment,” he added. “In my experience, this was not a process; it was abuse, and the authorities need to respect that whether they agree with it or not.”