Diocese Says Father Pavone Is a Priest in Good Standing

Update: New letter issued.

Father Frank Pavone
Father Frank Pavone (photo: EWTN photo)

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. 13 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 today, 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 advised his fellow bishops to consider asking the faithful to withhold further contributions until these matters have been resolved.

The order takes effect today and Father Pavone is expected to return to Amarillo by this 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.

“There are four other priests besides myself who are assigned to this ministry full time and three others part time, and another 55 full-time employees. We have an active board of directors, as well as an advisory board of 21 bishops and ministries operating in dozens of countries,” he stated.

Priests for Life is affiliated with a slew of successful 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 headquarters 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, vicar of clergy and moderator of the Curia. who referenced a brief Catholic News Service wire story posted on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Msgr. Waldow confirmed that Father Pavone was on his way to Amarillo.

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 previously incardinated in the Archdiocese of New York, where he was ordained in 1988, and relocated to Amarillo 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.

The Amarillo bishop asserted that Father Pavone’s financial resources made it possible for him to rebuff demands for a full accounting. Bishop Zurek further contended that, as the pro-life leader’s religious superior, he felt impelled “to safeguard his priestly ministry, to which I am obligated as his father, and to help the Church avoid any scandal due to the national scope of the PFL’s work.”

Bishop Zurek asserted that PFL’s growing financial clout also led Father Pavone to withhold “appropriate obedience to his bishop. It seems that his fame has caused him to see priestly obedience as an inconvenience to his unique status and an obstacle to the possible international scope of his ministry.”

In an interview with the Register today, 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 prolife 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. The 2008 financial records for Priests for Life can be found here.

Father Pavone’s statement was bolstered by an additional letter issued by Father David Deibel, chief canonist for Priests for Life, who noted that the nonprofit had undergone annual audits for the past decade and that PFL 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. The documents include quarterly statements, organizational charts, charts of accounts, internal-management documents, and even the actual check register when it was requested by Bishop Zurek. ...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.”

“It should be noted that since we have formally petitioned Bishop Zurek to rescind his penal decree of Sept. 6, under the law, as contained in the norm of Canon 1353, the effects of that decree are suspended by the law itself until the matter is resolved by hierarchical recourse,” Father Deibel said. “In other words, under the canon law of the Church, Father Pavone is free to continue his pro-life ministry full time outside the Diocese of Amarillo until this matter is decided by the Vatican.”

Father Pavone said that he spent time with Bishop Zurek during Holy Week 2011 and was told there were no outstanding questions regarding PFL’s financial records.

The deeper issue, he suggested, 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.

In the Register interview, Father Pavone acknowledged that Cardinal Edward Egan, his last religious superior in the New York Archdiocese, had placed him in a parish but also gave him time for pro-life work. He came to Amarillo at the invitation of Bishop Yanta, who helped him found the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, which has since been disbanded.

Reportedly, Church leaders were concerned about the canonical status of the religious order with respect to its relationship to Priests of Life, which operates as a secular corporation and engages in political advocacy.

“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.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.