Bishop Recalls Father Pavone

The bishop of Amarillo, Texas, is calling on Priests for Life director Father Frank Pavone to release important financial information. The popular priest, however, insists everything is above board.

Story Update: On Sept. 15, Msgr. Harold Waldow, vicar of clergy and moderator of the Curia for the Amarillo, Texas, Diocese, issued a clarification about the matter in a letter: “As the vicar of clergy for the Diocese of Amarillo and the moderator of the Curia, I want to publically state that Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life is a priest in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church. He has all the faculties for ministry that every priest of our diocese has in and for the Diocese of Amarillo. I would also like to clarify a point that because there is a dispute about the auditing process and the complete audit for all the entities of Priests for Life, Rachel's Vineyard, and the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life does not mean that Father Pavone is being charged with any malfeasance or being accused of any wrongdoing with the financial matters of Priests for Life."

The Register's original Sept. 25 issue story continues below.

AMARILLO, Texas — Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, was recalled to his home diocese in a dramatic action with ramifications for his international pro-life apostolate.

In a letter circulated to U.S. cardinals and bishops and released Sept. 13, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas, expressed alarm about Father Pavone’s refusal to provide full disclosure of his organization’s financial records and to “show appropriate obedience to his bishop.” He asked that other bishops advise their faithful to consider withholding donations until the issue is settled.

The order took effect the same day, and Father Pavone was expected to return to Amarillo that evening. He will be prohibited from leaving the diocese for an unspecified period and has been directed to use this interim as an opportunity for “prayer and reflection.”

Father Pavone wrote a letter to the U.S. bishops, dated Sept. 12, that did not explicitly address every charge raised in Bishop Zurek’s letter, but confirmed that he was “utilizing appropriate recourse to Rome for those aspects of the situation that cannot be resolved locally.”

“Please be assured at the outset that I am committed to full compliance with my bishop’s requests and directives and have already indicated the same to him — prior to his sending his letter to all the bishops of the U.S.,” wrote Father Pavone, who noted that “Bishop Zurek is my ordinary, but he is not the bishop of Priests for Life.”

In his letter, Father Pavone suggested that his apostolate had considerable backing in the Church and would overcome any obstacles posed by Bishop Zurek’s action.

Priests for Life is affiliated with a number of pro-life ministries, including Rachel’s Vineyard, the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, African-American Outreach, Deacons for Life, and Seminarians for Life.

For many years, Father Pavone, 52, has also provided programming for EWTN; the Register is a service of the network. He had just completed taping at the network before traveling to Amarillo.

Michael Warsaw, CEO of EWTN and publisher of the Register, confirmed that the network was aware of Bishop Zurek’s decision to recall Father Pavone and was awaiting clarification of the issues.

“EWTN is in ongoing conversations with both the Diocese of Amarillo and Father Pavone to clarify the exact nature of the restrictions and their potential impact on EWTN’s ability to continue to air programming featuring Father Frank. While these discussions are continuing, the network encourages our EWTN family to keep this matter in your prayers,” said Warsaw.

Bishop Zurek was not available for comment, and all media inquiries were referred to Msgr. Harold Waldow, who referenced a Catholic News Service wire story posted on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Msgr. Waldow, on Sept. 13, confirmed that Father Pavone was on his way to Amarillo.

Presented All Documents

Bishop Zurek, in his letter, said his action “underscored his concerns about the stewardship of the finances of the Priests for Life (PFL) organization,” describing it as a “lucrative” business that “provides Father Pavone with financial independence from all legitimate ecclesiastical oversight.”

Bishop Zurek suggested there “have been persistent questions and concerns by clergy and laity regarding the transactions of millions of dollars of donations to the PFL from whom the donors have a rightful expectation that the moneys are being used prudently.”

He noted that these concerns were not new and had “persisted with no clear and adequate answers since the time when Father Pavone was under two previous bishop ordinaries” — Father Pavone was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of New York by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1988. He also served under Cardinal O’Connor’s successor, Cardinal Edward Egan, but was incardinated into the Diocese of Amarillo in 2005 at the invitation of Bishop Zurek’s predecessor, Bishop John Yanta.

Kate Monaghan, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New York, referred all inquiries to the Diocese of Amarillo.

Bishop Zurek charged that Father Pavone “has consistently refused to subject the PFL to a transparent and complete auditing of all expenditures.”

“I have reasons to be alarmed at the potential financial scandal that might arise if it were the result of my failure to correct Father Pavone’s incorrigible defiance to my legitimate authority as his bishop,” he wrote in a statement that employed unusually strong language.

In an interview with the Register Sept. 13, Father Pavone said that Priests for Life had repeatedly provided Bishop Zurek a full accounting of the nonprofit’s financial records and that the dispute arose, in part, from a larger question: whether it was possible for a diocesan priest to pursue a “calling within in a calling — a full-time pro-life apostolate.”

“The bottom line is: We sent him every financial document he has asked for. We answered all his questions, and we made our financial team available to his financial team,” said Father Pavone, who confirmed that Priests for Life raised between $10 million and $11 million in 2010.

An additional letter, issued by Father David Deibel, chief canonist for Priests for Life, noted that the nonprofit had undergone annual audits for the past decade and that Priests for Life had “submitted over 40 separate financial and management documents to the bishop of Amarillo (Bishop John Yanta as well as Bishop Zurek). These included all annual audits from 2005 through 2010. ... These submissions have never been acknowledged.”

Characterizing Bishop Zurek’s letter as “an outright and unjustified attack on the work of Priests for Life as a whole, which is much more grave than his real or imagined difficulty with Father Pavone,” Father Deibel reported that “we have formally petitioned Bishop Zurek to rescind his directive.”

He noted that “Bishop Zurek has threatened in writing to withdraw Father Pavone permanently from pro-life ministry if he were to exercise his canonical rights to hierarchical recourse. As an association that has always sought to be faithful to the Church and its teaching, this is the only forum left to us within the Church.”

The deeper issue was his ability to continue working in his chosen apostolate, and he expressed hope that he might be able to return to the New York Archdiocese, where the headquarters for Priests for Life is located.

“Bishop Zurek is quite aware that my heart is in pro-life work; it is a commitment I made to God. A spiritual father is supposed to affirm the work of his priest. I told him, ‘If you don’t see yourself able to give me permission to do this work, I understand,’” said Father Pavone in the Register interview.

“I do not intend to stay in Amarillo. I am in consultation regarding the next step, but don’t want to be hopping around from diocese to diocese. Still, it’s inconceivable that in the Roman Catholic Church there is no place for a priest to commit himself full time to pro-life ministry.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.