NEW YORK—Father Frank A. Pavone, a leading figure in the pro-life movement as director of Priests for Life, was reassigned in early September to parish life in a New York sorely in need of priests.
His organization expressed disappointment at the reassignment by Cardinal Edward Egan. Father Pavone is in conversation with the New York archbishop about how he might continue in his position. The cardinal declined to comment on a priest personnel matter.
“We have assignments that need to be filled, and we don't have enough priests to fill them,” said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese. The cardinal last year reassigned about five priests from administrative roles at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., into parishes and asked priests there to take on administrative duties in addition to their teaching assignments.
“This is a continuation of that,” Zwilling said.
Anthony DeStefano, executive director of priests for life, said in a Sept. 10 statement, “We are shocked at what has happened and frankly can't make heads or tails of it. Neither can other pro-life leaders worldwide. I know that Father Frank has committed his entire life to ending the tragedy of abortion.”
Priests for Life was founded in California in 1991 to “train, motivate and encourage priests to effectively advance the Gospel of Life.”
DeStefano said that until a new priest director is named, Father Pavone has transferred the leadership of the organization to him and other close associates “to avoid any wrong impression that Priests for Life would operate without the blessing of the Church.”
He added, “Nothing is going to stop this organization from doing the things that have made us so effective in the past eight years.”
Father Pavone, who became national director in 1993 with the permission of Cardinal John O'Connor, declined to be interviewed. He is reportedly preparing a statement for release at a later date.
Jerry Horn, his spokesman, said he expects that Father Pavone will be meeting with Cardinal Egan before the monthlong World Synod of Bishops, which begins Sept. 30. The cardinal is a papally appointed general relator. “A lot is still hanging in the balance,” said Horn. “Father Frank would like to maintain his place with Priests for Life, in an obedient way.”
A pro-life activist for over 20 years, Father Pavone was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York by Cardinal O'Connor in 1988. In 1997, he was asked by the Vatican to be an official of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Father Pavone has preached and taught against abortion in all 50 states and in many countries around the world.
In 1996, he was invited to address the pro-life caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was also invited by Mother Teresa of Calcutta to address the clergy of India on abortion and the sanctity of human life. In the United States, he has produced many television and radio programs. He has an ongoing “Defending Life” series on cable's Eternal Word Television Network. He also appears on the Odyssey Network and produces regular radio programs for Catholic Family Radio and Vatican Radio. He is quoted regularly in the secular media on life issues.
Under Father Pavone's leadership, Priests for Life grew to an organization of 40,000 members with five full-time priest staff members and 30 full-time lay staff members. Its Staten Island headquarter is named for Cardinal O'Connor, and the organization has U.S. offices in Washington, D.C., California, Minnesota, Michigan and, abroad, in Rome.
Earlier this year, Priests for Life announced a $12 million media campaign that would use television spots and billboards to reach out to women tempted by abortion or suffering from post-abortion syndrome.
But a month later, after meeting with Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Father Pavone said the organization would coordinate its efforts with an already existing Project Rachel campaign. Then, in June, it sponsored full-page ads in both USA Today and The Wall Street Journal calling for an investigation of the abortion industry.
Helen Westover, a Catholic from middle New York who directs Mid-Hudson STOPP Planned Parenthood, said she was protesting the move as “a terrible disservice to the pro-life movement.”
“Will we allow a leading shepherd of the Church to eviscerate our efforts, without saying, ‘With deepest respect for your office, you are wrong,’” she wrote in a Sept. 14 e-mail encouraging fellow pro-life advocates to protest.
“‘Your responsibility is to preach the truth of the faith,” she continued. “We, your flock, need to hear the truth. We need for our country to hear the truth. You have the office and the obligation to shout from the housetops, ‘Abortion is murder!’ Abortion unchecked and neglected by the clergy is bringing down the judgment of God upon this country.’”
Zwilling told the Register: “Cardinal Egan's position [on abortion] is well-known and forcefully stated on many occasions. I don't believe any defense is needed of his commitment to the cause of life.”
Angela McNaughton, executive director of the Pregnancy Care Center in New Rochelle, N.Y., said that in spite of Father Pavone's insight and ability as a speaker to “touch women” who are tempted by abortion or suffering from its effects, “people in the parishes really do need the presence of priests in their lives.”
Still, she said, “I'd certainly like to see him continue in some capacity” at Priests for Life, such as a limited parish assignment, leaving him time to maintain a national voice.
“As a parish priest, he can help people save their souls,” said McNaughton. “But with a wider forum he can help save many more.”
Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago, was more optimistic. “I understand Father Pavone will go back to his assignment and that he and the cardinal will be having a meeting,” he said. “I think things will all be resolved. I'm very optimistic he'll remain head of Priests for Life with the blessings of the cardinal of New York.”
John Burger writes from New York.