NEW YORK — Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, faces an investigation from his bishop for placing an unborn child’s corpse on the altar in Priests for Life’s chapel as part of two Facebook live videos urging people to vote for Donald Trump on Election Day.
If the investigation reveals grave violations of canon law, Father Pavone may face disciplinary action.
“Father Frank Pavone has posted a video on his Facebook page of the body of an aborted fetus, which is against the dignity of human life and is a desecration of the altar,” Bishop Patrick Zurek of the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, where the priest is canonically incardinated, said in a Nov. 8 statement. “We believe that no one who is pro-life can exploit a human body for any reason, especially the body of a fetus.”
Father Pavone had livestreamed two videos on Sunday, standing behind the altar at Priests for Life’s headquarters, on which he had placed the dead body of an unborn child, completely naked and flanked by two burning candles on the altar. In both videos, one more than 44 minutes long and the other four minutes and 33 seconds long, Father Pavone urged viewers to vote for Donald Trump and the Republicans for Congress in order to stop abortion from claiming more innocent victims.
Both videos together had a combined total of more than 1.2 million views on Facebook as of publication.
And while Father Pavone has received much support on social media for these latest videos, he was also criticized by many Catholics, who inundated the Diocese of Amarillo with messages, for causing scandal.
Caitlin Marchand, a faithful Catholic mother living in Louisiana, told the Register that, as a woman who buried two sons from miscarriage, she contacted the Amarillo Diocese after seeing Father Pavone “calmly talk over the [baby’s] naked body” without any appropriate respect for the child’s dignity. She added that the sight was incredibly painful, given her own losses, and she wanted to “gather up that poor child so nobody can ever disrespect her again.”
“In charity, I believe Father Pavone had good intentions,” she said, “but I’m very bothered that not just he, but a whole group of people, came up with and executed this idea, without anybody realizing it was a bad thing.”
Bishop Zurek said that Priests for Life is a civil institution, not a Catholic organization. He added his diocese “deeply regrets the offense and outrage caused by the video for the faithful and the community at large” and said the diocese was opening an investigation.
“The action and presentation of Father Pavone in this video is not consistent with the beliefs of the Catholic Church,” the bishop said.
Father Pavone, a member of President-elect Donald Trump’s pro-life and Catholic advisory committees, introduced viewers in both videos to the child killed by legal abortion. He explained he had already said the baby’s funeral and that he had obtained the body through a pathologist who entrusted the body to him.
“Today, two days before the election, I have taken the extraordinary step of showing you this child, because there are many in this country who still do not realize that we can prevent and must prevent a monumental disaster happening to our nation,” the priest said. He added that the Democratic Party wanted to protect abortion, while the Republican Party wanted to protect babies’ right to life.
The baby’s corpse was intact — a second-trimester victim of a prostaglandin abortion, which is far less common than the usual D&C (dilation and curettage) abortion, due to the higher probability of the baby being born alive.
Father Pavone told the Register that he believed the videos were necessary in the election cycle because “the word ‘abortion’ has lost all its meaning — even for committed pro-life people.”
“It just doesn’t impact us the way it needs to, unless and until we see it,” he said. For too many people, he said, abortion is “too abstract.”
Father Pavone said the stakes were high for the election, based on his conviction that the country was on the “brink of disaster” if Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had won. Now with the election of Trump and the Republicans to Congress, “so many good things were now able to happen and will happen.”
He saw the opportunity as a way to “describe what [abortion supporters] are defending.”
Source of the Baby
Father Pavone told the Register that the baby was temporarily entrusted to Priests for Life “through a Protestant pastor who obtained it through a pathologist who obtained it from an abortion facility.”
He said the pastor came to him to arrange for a burial service to be held, where people could see what had been done to the baby — just as people saw the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose mother insisted he have an open-casket funeral so people could see how the African-American teenager had been tortured and killed by Mississippi white supremacists in 1955.
According to Father Pavone, he put the pastor in touch with a funeral home for burial. But the baby’s body had not been laid to rest after the service, as Father Pavone revealed the minister reached out to him some time later.
“As the election proceeded and intensified, he indicated to me that the baby was still under his auspices, so to speak; he had access to the body,” Father Pavone continued. “We talked again about showing people again the reality of the aborted child, and so we did that.”
Father Pavone did not identify the pastor, and he declined to provide a general time frame that would indicate when these conservations took place, which he felt might identify him.
On the videos, Father Pavone said the pathologist “entrusted [the baby’s body] to us for burial.” However, Father Pavone told the Register he did not know when the baby would be buried. He said the body was out of his hands and back with the Protestant minister.
The priest did say that, if he could do it over, he would not have displayed the body on the altar, but on a table. While he said Mass at the chapel, he said it had not been formally dedicated by a bishop.
Shock to Mothers
Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, told the Register that the videos had “the potential to harm and hurt” both women who live with the trauma of voluntary abortion and women who have experienced the grief of involuntarily miscarrying their babies.
Turner, who is a Catholic and post-abortive mother, said she completely understands the urgency of fighting for an end to abortion by electing good people and “fighting the good fight to educate people about the true nature and horror of abortion.”
She said she appreciates the work of the many people connected to Priests for Life, “who are committed 100%” to provide loving care and protection to unborn children and their mothers. However, she said that the use of graphic images of unborn babies’ corpses is traumatic “on many levels” to all women who have lost a child. The livestream, she explained, took this traumatic viewing even further.
“I’m even more traumatized that this little one would have their body so coldly displayed in what is supposed to be a sanctuary of God’s grace, without any comprehension of the potential trauma to those who might accidently or deliberately see what has been done,” she said.
This is not the first time that Father Pavone has had demonstrations of the victims of abortion over video before their burial. In 2008, Father Pavone introduced on his YouTube channel Dr. Byron Calhoun’s demonstration of victims of prostaglandin abortion, whose bodies Calhoun took out of a cooler. The video ends with Father Pavone closing a casket over one of the victims.
‘People Are Rightly Appalled’
Now, Father Pavone’s actions may have landed him in serious trouble with the Church’s law, which is meant to uphold the integrity of its teachings, explained Dominican Father Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
Father Petri told the Register that he supports the work that Priests for Life had done and emphasized that the fight against abortion is “the issue par excellence.” But he said Father Pavone had gone a step too far and created scandal in the Church, both for his treatment of human remains and his treatment of an altar.
“People are rightly appalled,” Father Petri said. “The Code of Canon Law is very clear about not giving scandal to the faithful and not acting contrary to the holiness of the place.”
Even though the altar is not consecrated by the bishop, Father Petri said it is still considered holy by virtue of the fact that a priest regularly celebrates the holy sacrifice of the Mass upon it in the chapel. But it creates scandal for the faithful to see someone “violat[ing] the sanctity of the worship of God by placing a dead person on an altar.”
“In that way, it doesn’t matter whether it is consecrated by a bishop or not,” he said. “It clearly looks like an altar; it’s dressed like an altar — therefore, it’s an altar.”
“The Church is very clear that the altar which is used for the sacrifice of the Mass cannot be used for any other purpose,” he said.
He pointed out that it’s an ancient human precept — not just a Church precept — that the dead must be laid to rest. The Church also has “very strict protocols about how bodies are meant to be treated.”
He also said that it would have been different if Father Pavone had been giving a homily at a funeral rite, where the deceased baby would have been dressed appropriately and placed in a casket in accord with the baby’s human dignity. But he said the fact that the baby’s body, “not cleaned and uncovered,” was being used for a “political statement as a sort of prop” both violated the dignity of the altar and the human person and, in his view, constituted what St. John Paul II called “intrinsic evil” in Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 80).
“St. John Paul II said an intrinsic evil is anything that contradicted human dignity, and this contradicted human dignity,” the Dominican said.
Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon lawyer based in Rome, told the Register that he believes Father Pavone’s actions were “imprudent,” but that the law prefers handling such things through “pastoral or an administrative” actions rather than judicial penalties.
The priest said that the treatment of the body is not “specifically covered by canon law.” However, Father Pietrzyk pointed out that Canon 1399 allows a bishop to punish violations not specifically enumerated in the code, “when the special gravity of the violation requires it and necessity demands that scandals be prevented or repaired.”
He also said that, if Father Pavone’s bishop pursued penal remedies against him, the bishop would have to ensure that Father Pavone’s rights were respected, even at the investigation stage. This would include, he added, “allowing him a right to defense, access to canonical counsel and the like.”
However, Father Pietrzyk said canon law requires Mass to be celebrated “on a dedicated or blessed altar.” He emphasized that the regular celebration of Mass in any location, even an office building, requires the permission of the local bishop and that the space be reserved solely for sacred use.
“Just because neither the place nor the altar were consecrated is irrelevant. The canons assume that once a place is given permission to be used for sacred worship, it becomes sacred and cannot be given over to profane use,” Father Pietrzyk said. “The blessing isn’t magic. What makes the altar sacred is that it is reserved for divine use. Does the filming of an overtly political message with the corpse of a child on an altar constitute profane use? I think a good case could be made that it does.”
The Dominican explained that Canon 1376 indicates that “a person who profanes a movable or immovable sacred object is to be punished with a just penalty.”
However, he added, “the canons do not really determine exactly what that just penalty would be.”
Ultimately, the consequences for Father Pavone over the incident rest with Bishop Zurek.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.