Cracks Appear In US Pro-Life Movement Over Pavone’s Leadership – Analysis
By Jonah McKeown and Shannon Mullen
Frank Pavone, the national director of the pro-life organization Priests for Life, has repeatedly framed his dismissal from the priesthood late last year as the culmination of a long-running campaign by some in the Catholic hierarchy to undermine his outspoken pro-life activism.
“This is not just an attack on me,” Pavone said in a Dec. 19, 2022, statement, “but an effort by forces both inside and outside the Church to intimidate every courageous pro-life priest and lay activist.”
Pavone’s narrative is difficult to square with his recent troubles, however, as former members of his own organization and other leaders in the wider pro-life community have sought to distance themselves from him, especially after several women went public with allegations that Pavone sexually harassed them while they worked for him at Priests for Life. Those accusations, first reported by The Pillar, led two former Priest for Life officials to call for Pavone to step down from the organization to allow for an independent investigation.
More recently, several pro-life leaders, frustrated by what they see as Pavone’s lack of transparency and accountability, have gone public with complaints that Pavone has not provided straight answers either about the Vatican’s action or the misconduct allegations.
Among them is Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-life Action League, who resigned in February from a private forum of pro-life leaders convened by Pavone and Priests for Life to coordinate strategies. Pavone and Scheidler had worked closely together over the years on the National Day of Remembrance for Aborted Children.
“I have completely lost confidence in Frank’s leadership,” Scheidler said in a letter of resignation from the 115 Forum. “I no longer trust him, or Priests for Life, as partners in my work at the Pro-Life Action League.”
Other pro-life leaders who spoke to CNA say they still strongly back Pavone. One supporter, Troy Newman, executive director of Operation Rescue, told CNA the prospect of losing Pavone as the head of Priests for Life would be “like missing General George Patton from WWII.” He described Pavone’s critics within the pro-life community as “leftists” and dismissed the sexual harassment allegations leveled against Pavone, which include accusations of inappropriate touching and other alleged grooming behavior, as “hyped-up baloney.”
‘Working for greater unity’
A central figure in pro-life activism for the past 30 years, Pavone was arguably the most prominent pro-life voice among the U.S. Catholic clergy before the Vatican in November permanently barred him from functioning as a priest, for what it called his “blasphemous” social media posts and “persistent disobedience” to his bishop, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas.
Pavone, 64, has become known, at least in recent years, for his strident and occasionally profanity-laced social media posts, as well as his full-throated public support of former president Donald Trump. He also gained significant attention in late 2016 after placing the body of an aborted baby on a table used for Mass while livestreaming an endorsement of Trump.
Pavone’s dismissal from the priesthood garnered significant attention in part because Priests for Life is one of the most influential Catholic pro-life groups in the country.
Based in Titusville, Florida, the organization, which says it employs about 50 people, routinely elicits donations in excess of $10 millioneach year, thanks in large part to Pavone’s talents as a provocative news commentator with more than 217,000 Twitter followers. That’s millions more in donations than the annual contributions made to other pro-life organizations such as the National Right to Life Committee and Live Action, according to the organizations’ most recent federal tax filings available online. In the years 2014-2018, Priests for Life reported total contributions of $55.8 million, its 2018 federal tax filing shows.
As it explains on its website, Priests for Life has two main purposes.
First, it works “to galvanize the clergy to preach, teach, and mobilize their people more effectively in the effort to end abortion and euthanasia,” primarily through talks, training seminars, videos posted on social media, and participation in pro-life events around the U.S. and abroad.
Second, it supports a “family” of affiliated pro-life ministries including Rachel’s Vineyard, a retreat program for women and men who have lost children to abortion, and the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, which encourages those who now regret their abortions to speak out about their experiences.
In addition to these efforts, Priests for Life sees “working for greater unity within the pro-life movement” as integral to its mission. But some pro-life leaders say Pavone’s handling of the crises he’s faced in recent months is having the opposite effect.
Monica Migliorino Miller, director of the Michigan-based group Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, said she was disappointed that Pavone gave no advance warning to her and other pro-life leaders about the Vatican’s severe sanctions, which came after a formal canonical process in Rome.
“His dismissal from the priesthood came as a total shock to me as I thought his difficulties with his bishop were resolved,” Miller told CNA. “Apparently that was not the case.”
In response to media inquiries about these issues, Pavone has frequently referred back to a 13,600-word, 26-page-long PDF document posted to his personal website detailing, from Pavone’s perspective, his “persecution” by Bishop Zurek and other Church leaders, going back to his early conflicts with Cardinal Edward Egan in the early 2000s when Priests for Life was based in Staten Island, New York.
Scheidler, the head of the Pro-Life Action League, told CNA he was shocked when Pavone referred him to the same document when he asked Pavone about the controversies.
“Why is he asking me to read a 30-page website and hundreds of documents to answer my three, four simple questions, instead of just answering them?” Scheidler asked.
Reading Pavone’s account after Pavone continued to be evasive in meetings with pro-life leaders only added to his dismay, he said.
Over his 17 years as a priest of the Diocese of Amarillo, Pavone appears to have disobeyed Bishop Zurek’s instructions on several occasions, including a 2014 order that Pavone was not to appear in the media and a 2016 order — issued soon after the incident with the aborted baby — not to celebrate Mass publicly or wear his clerical garb.
Pavone has circulated a pair of letters he says support his claims that Zurek was determined to get rid of him., one of which 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.
Scheidler said Pavone’s lack of transparency about these conflicts and sanctions has hurt the reputations of pro-life organizations that have associated themselves with Priests for Life over the years.
“I found just a pattern of obfuscation, of equivocation, of dividing and conquering,” Scheidler said of his reading of Pavone’s account. “He was always trying to set the Vatican off against the U.S. bishops, one bishop off against another.”
More recently, Scheidler said he was deeply disturbed by Pavone saying that he is being “aborted” for his pro-life activism.
“So in every profession, including the priesthood, if you defend the #unborn, you will be treated like them!” Pavone tweeted on Dec. 17, 2022. “The only difference is that when we are ‘aborted,’ we continue to speak, loud and clear.”
“The fact that Frank presented himself as a victim, the fact that he compared himself to an aborted baby … I’ve heard this guy speak so eloquently about the unborn child, but then make this bizarre comparison to himself, no matter how extreme of a punishment laicization is, to suggest that that’s like being aborted is just bizarre. It’s unhinged,” Scheidler said.
Herb Geraghty, a secular pro-life leader with Rehumanize International who also resigned from the Pavone-led private forum, similarly expressed frustration about Pavone’s ambiguous comments about the sexual harassment charges leveled against him. Pavone has never specifically refuted the allegations publicly, saying instead that he is “enormously saddened by recent efforts of some to revisit old accusations that contain numerous inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and mistruths, that have already been addressed.”
The Diocese of Amarillo has remained silent about the women’s accounts, leaving numerous questions unanswered.
After the allegations came out, Geraghty said it became clear that Pavone “did not [have an explanation],” even for fellow pro-life leaders, apart from saying that the situation was “handled.”
“I have been extremely disappointed and uncomfortable with the responses I have heard [from Pavone and Priests for Life] on this issue, and I can tell you they’re not any different from what the public responses have been,” Geraghty said.
‘It’s about the fruits’
Other pro-life leaders with deep ties to the former priest have fiercely defended him in recent months, dismissing calls for Pavone to step aside as the work of those — mainly fellow Catholics — who may want Pavone to exit the pro-life movement.
Troy Newman of Operation Rescue opined that Pavone’s laicization was “100%” due to a desire among the U.S. bishops to quash Pavone’s pro-life ministry and said he believes that Pavone’s pro-life critics have disavowed Pavone not because they couldn’t get answers but because of “political, religious, and moral differences.”
“The people who know Father Frank know him, and will continue to support him,” Newman said, describing him as one of “the most driven pro-life people I know.”
Joe Langfeld, executive director of Human Life Alliance, a pro-life group based in Minneapolis, said he sees no reason to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and ask Pavone to step aside after what he sees as the “tremendous good” that Pavone has done for the pro-life movement in the U.S.
“For us, it’s about the fruits,” Langfeld said.
Gregg Cunningham is one of several pro-life leaders who said they are satisfied with Pavone’s response to misconduct allegations. Cunningham leads the California-based Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, on whose board Pavone has sat for the past 25 years.
He said he believes pro-life leaders currently disavowing Pavone are doing so, at least in part, because they are jealous of Pavone’s prominent position in the U.S. pro-life movement.
“If I were persuaded that Father Pavone were guilty of mistreating the women … then I would ask him to resign from our board. But that’s not what I see here,” Cunningham said.
“There’s a scandal here. But the scandal is not anything Father Frank has done,” Cunningham said.
“The scandal is what’s being done to Father Frank. And the scandal is the Church has turned away from this holocaust [of abortion] and is persecuting somebody who tried to take the holocaust seriously.”
Priests for Life did not answer CNA’s questions about the pro-life leaders’ concerns or whether Pavone has any plans to step aside from his leadership position. The organization issued a more general statement instead.
“The false accusations and vitriol are truly unfortunate, and Priests for Life has not contributed or encouraged our supporters to respond in kind. We have great love and respect for all members in our movement, and we are grateful for the tremendous and widespread support amongst pro-life leadership,” the statement from Priests for Life reads.
“We will not be deterred by distractions of any kind and are instead committed to our mission of protecting the sanctity and gift of life,” the statement adds.
‘Serious reckoning’ needed
Miller of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society believes the fallout from Pavone’s dismissal from the priesthood and the sexual misconduct allegations against him have caused “a very large conflict” within the pro-life movement.
“The fact is, Frank is one of the most important pro-life leaders, and up to a point what affects him, in terms of any scandal, even if baseless, also affects other leaders,” Miller said.
“I have no interest in canceling Pavone … accountability doesn’t mean shunning him and never allowing him to do pro-life work ever again,” Geraghty said. “But it might mean that he needs to have a serious reckoning with how he has treated people in the past.”
For his part, Scheidler said he believes it is vital for the movement to “rebuild our public image from the ground up,” present a united front, and show an increasingly hostile culture that the movement is pro-woman.
“This is a movement that has been commissioned to share a very difficult message with a culture that does not want to hear it,” Scheidler said. “And if we haven’t got the courage to call out dishonesty within our own movement, then how can we succeed with the American public?”