By Elise Ann Allen
ROME — (Crux) Frank Pavone, long a controversial figure in American Catholicism for his unconventional pro-life advocacy who was recently laicized by the Vatican, has accused his bishop of abuse of authority and “constant lies,” saying he has no intention of quitting his ministry.
Speaking to Crux, Pavone said Bishop Patrick Zurek, who oversees the Diocese of Amarillo where Pavone was incardinated as a priest, has been threatening to dismiss him from the priesthood for the past five years “under three or four changing, shifting rationales.”
“In American law, you go after a crime in search of a person. Something wrong has been done, and you go and track down the people responsible for it. This is the opposite, it’s a person in search of a crime. They’re going after me, and they keep changing the reasons why,” he said.
Pavone called Bishop Zurek’s actions an “abuse of authority,” and said he is aware that he’s made mistakes in his ministry but that he has sought to make reparation for those errors and has been obedient to instructions from his superiors to cease and desist certain activities and functions, such as those tied to U.S. politics.
“I want to be a priest. I’m not leaving the Church under any circumstances. If you close the door, I’m going to be standing on the other side of the door waiting for it to open again, and I’m going to keep doing my pro-life work,” Pavone said.
“You tell me whether this is work that’s consistent with the Church or not. I’m going to keep doing it, and I’m going to keep faithful to my calling as a priest. That’s a calling, not a piece of paper,” he said.
Dismissal from the clerical state
Over the weekend, news broke that Pavone, 63, had been dismissed from the clerical state for disobedience and blasphemy after a long and contentious deadlock with Bishop Zurek.
The news was communicated in a letter dated Dec. 13 and sent to all U.S. bishops by the Vatican’s envoy to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.
In the letter, Archbishop Pierre said he had been informed by the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Clergy, South Korean Cardinal Lazarus You Heung-sik, that on Nov. 9 of this year, “a supreme decision admitting of no possibility of appeal directed that Rev. Frank Pavone be dismissed from the clerical state.”
“As you will know, Father Pavone was a very public and high-profile figure associated with the Right to Life Movement in the U.S. His dismissal from the clerical state may, therefore, be a matter of interest among the faithful,” the letter said.
Given the interest the decision will likely generate, Archbishop Pierre included a statement on Pavone’s laicization that he said was approved by the Dicastery for Clergy and could be posted to diocesan and archdiocesan websites “if you deem appropriate.”
The statement, which has since been published on the Diocese of Amarillo’s website, said that the decision to defrock Pavone “was taken after Father Pavone was found guilty in canonical proceedings of blasphemous communications on social media, and of persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop.”
“Father Pavone was given ample opportunity to defend himself in the canonical proceedings, and he was also given multiple opportunities to submit himself to the authority of his diocesan bishop,” the statement said.
However, “it was determined that Father Pavone had no reasonable justification for his actions.”
Referring to Priests for Life, the statement said that since it “is not a Catholic organization, Mr. Pavone’s continuing role in it as a lay person would be entirely up to the leadership of that organization.”
Decades of controversy
The Founder and National Director of Priests for Life, which he established in 1990, Pavone has long been a lightning rod in U.S. Catholicism.
In one of his most notable controversies during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, while also serving as co-chair of Donald Trump’s pro-life coalition, Pavone produced a livestreamed video in which he placed a basket containing the body of an aborted baby onto an altar. The video, which urged Catholics to oppose Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, caused immediate backlash, with Bishop Zurek insisting that he would investigate the incident.
In January 2020, further controversy erupted over his appointment as co-chair of the Pro-Life Voices for Trump coalition and his announcement in April of that year that he would be joining the Catholics for Trump advisory board.
In July of that year, Pavone announced that he would be stepping down from his position on the Catholics for Trump advisory board in compliance with a request from the Congregation for Clergy that he not hold formal titles with political campaigns.
That request was based on Canon 287 of the Code of Canon Law, which states in its second article that clergy “are not to play an active role in political parties … unless, in the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority, this is required for the defense of the rights of the Church or to promote the common good.”
Speaking to Crux, Pavone said Bishop Zurek’s request that he renounce his priestly duties dates back to at least 2017, when the two of them had a meeting attended by other clergy in which Bishop Zurek asked Pavone to limit his pro-life advocacy and indicated that he no longer wanted Pavone inside of his diocese.
“I said, okay, you don’t want me to work inside the diocese, and you don’t want me to work outside the diocese,” he said. “You want me out of the priesthood altogether, don’t you?”
Pavone said Bishop Zurek initially denied the claim but a few weeks later sent him a letter asking him to voluntarily request laicization or Bishop Zurek would formally ask the Vatican to do it.
Two years later, in 2019, Pavone said the Vatican “dismissed” Bishop Zurek’s request and authorized his transfer to the Diocese of Colorado Springs, which was led by Bishop Michael Sheridan until his death in September of this year.
Once this agreement had been reached, Pavone said the Vatican authorized his transfer but ordered him to stay in his new diocese for at least half of the year, restricting his ability to travel as part of his advocacy with Priests for Life.
“Neither [Bishop Sheridan] nor I saw that as workable because the whole purpose here is to enable me to continue this mission and foster this vocation of full-time pro-life work, which is what I’ve been doing for 30 years,” Pavone said.
At that point, Pavone said, “we were back to square one, and Bishop Zurek was complaining.”
He said he eventually got wind that the Vatican’s Dicastery for Clergy had issued a ruling on his case with the pope’s approval based on Bishop Zurek’s complaints and was told that he needed a sit-down meeting with Bishop Zurek to go over that decision.
However, Pavone said he refused the meeting after deciding years ago that “I could no longer deal in any way, shape or form, on a human level, with Bishop Zurek, because of the constant lies, manipulation.”
Pavone said he found out about his dismissal from the clerical state over the weekend through media requests for comment on Archbishop Pierre’s letter.
Defending past record
Pavone defended his record on the allegations of blasphemy and disobedience in Archbishop Pierre’s letter, saying no one contacted him about the incident with the video of the aborted baby in 2016, but that “Instead of asking me what happened, all of a sudden I’m seeing in news reports that the diocese is launching an investigation.”
“Talk to me, ask me what happened. Call me, sit down with me. But no, they have to make a big show,” he said, saying Bishop Zurek “never asked me once through the whole process, okay, tell me your version of what happened.
“He had his own set of facts in his head and just went public with those facts even after we refuted them. Ultimately, that became one of his reasons for calling for dismissal from the clerical state,” he said.
In reference to his support for Donald Trump and the former US president’s MAGA movement, Pavone said that in both cases, the video and his political advocacy in the Trump campaign, “the things I was asked to do I did. I was obedient, cooperative, I carried out the changes I was requested to make.”
Pavone also denied the allegations of blasphemy, saying this charge is in reference to an angry tweet he sent out to a supporter of President Joe Biden during the 2020 election cycle, “when half the country was furious.”
“I went off into some tantrum, and I said, ‘G.D. loser Biden supporter.’ I shouldn’t have done that, and I don’t usually do that. It was an unusual moment of anger,” he said, accusing Bishop Zurek of blowing the issue out of proportion and making “a theological thing out of it,” saying, “God does not damn these people, Father Frank is declaring theologically that God is damning Biden and the Democrats.”
“It’s like, bishop, are you living in an alternate universe? In this one, where I live, people get mad, and people sometimes say things they shouldn’t say, and they say them out of anger, and you know what, one of the bad things we say sometimes is the G-D word.”
He also lamented the lack of recognition for his lifelong dedication to pro-life ministry, saying Archbishop Pierre, in his letter, referred to his association with the pro-life movement in the United States, but there was no sign of appreciation.
“You might want to work in a little phrase, just in passing, his 30 years of work ‘for which the Church is grateful,’ or ‘we judge this action to be necessary, but we recognize the value of this work, we’re grateful for the commitment.’ But no, they can’t even bring themselves to throw in a little phrase like that, which tells me all I need to know,” he said.
Pavone said he believes part of the reason this decision was made now is “a change in personnel” inside the Vatican, saying there are more than 20 years of back and forth with the Dicastery for Clergy under both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in which attempts to negotiate different solutions were made.
“Under Pope Francis, it’s been different. There’s also been a change in personnel at the Congregation for Clergy…They don’t know the history,” he said, saying he believes there is also “growing frustration” among U.S. bishops over allegations that he has been disobedient.
Referring to his ministry, Pavone said, “There’s no question that there’s nothing which is inconsistent with church teaching. So, what’s the problem? They’ve never been able to tell me or anyone else the problem.”
Pavone said that he “absolutely” intends to continue his work regardless of the Vatican’s ruling and pointed to what he said are several successful ministries within Priests for Life, such as healing and mercy ministries, and he also credited them as having had an impact on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to overturn Roe v Wade.
“We’re proud of the accomplishments, so no, I didn’t go along with [Bishop Zurek] telling me to stop doing this work, and I’m not going to do that now either,” he said, saying, “it’s full steam ahead.”
“My board and my staff are 1000 percent united behind me, and around me and with each other, we’re in a good situation,” he said, saying the supporters of Priests for Life are “supporting us not because of the bishops, they’re supporting us precisely because we’re doing the work they wish their bishops were doing, but they’re not. So, I think we’re in a good position for moving forward.”
Pavone said that if the Church “closes the door” on him, then he will not go away but will be standing “on the other side of the door. I’m not going to go join some Protestant church or anything like that, I’m sticking with the Church, and I’m sticking with the priesthood, this is my vocation.”
No Vatican decision can change “what’s in my heart,” and it “doesn’t change my passion and my commitment to this cause, and this mission, it doesn’t change that,” Pavone said, adding, “I’m here. As soon as you want to be reasonable, as soon as you want to open that door again, whether it’s this pope or the next pope, I’ll be around, and I’ll walk back through that door.”
Neither the Dicastery for Clergy nor the apostolic nunciature in the United States responded to Crux’s requests for comment.
The Diocese of Amarillo could not be reached by phone for comment on this story.