Frank Pavone, a priest for the age of Trump
(RNS) — The institutional pro-life movement’s remarkable political and legal successes derive from the brilliant collaboration and shrewd single-mindedness of activists, strategists and organizational leaders. Most of these are women, and many of them are Roman Catholic. This will become relevant in a moment.
But the big-tent nature of the work and the laser-like focus on criminalizing abortion has meant that the movement cannot be counted on to stand for much else: not decency, not anything else ecumenical Christian teaching proclaims and, to a sad and shocking extent, not even democracy itself.
There have been extremists, of course, sometimes violent ones. They have been mostly disavowed (aside from Jan. 6), and the movement projects an image of happy warriors who love moms and babies.
But Big Pro-Life also has among its ranks figures who lack principle, defiantly disregard legitimate authority, use obnoxious theatrics and are crude. One such figure, however, outshines them all: Mr. Frank Pavone, the founder of Priests for Life.
Pavone was, until recently, a Catholic priest himself, who spent the last 30 years living out a self-asserted “vocation-within-a-vocation” as a full-time, big-time anti-abortion activist. In November, Pavone made headlines as the Vatican announced that he had been laicized, or removed from his status as a member of the clergy.
His laicization was officially due to his “blasphemous communications on social media,” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop,” Amarillo, Texas, Bishop Patrick Zurek, who had repeatedly ordered Pavone to stop campaigning on behalf of former President Donald Trump, said.
For years, Pavone had evaded and defied ecclesial oversight, making it impossible for any responsible priest or prelate to affirm his work. This alone makes his laicization not only just but long overdue.
But in addition to his unrepentant violations of his vows, it has now been reported that multiple staffers of Priests for Life have accused Pavone of sexually harassing them. In a report published by The Pillar, they allege “sexual harassment, grooming behavior, and coercive physical contact with young women.”
Pavone, The Pillar report maintains, took an unusual interest in hiring young, entry-level colleagues and insisted that Priests for Life keep an apartment in New York to house interns and junior staffers. His accusers allege, in addition to multiple instances of spiritual manipulation and wanton disregard of professional boundaries and personal space, unwanted touching, incest-adjacent innuendo and textbook grooming behavior. At least one accuser’s home diocese paid the cost of her mental-health treatment, according to the report.
Pavone’s organization maintains that complaints “he was made aware of” were “resolved satisfactorily.”
Thus Pavone was a priest meant for the age of Trump. He became a Republican political hack who did far more to harm than help the Catholic Church. Imbued with an unearned sense of his own importance, he portrayed his organization as an urgent and irreplaceable voice, needlessly bucking a hierarchy whose position on abortion is well known and striking a heroic pose amid clerical ranks where pro-life priests are everywhere to be found.
Priests for Life was in fact not important and actually quite sinister. Insisting that the church has no teaching more crucial than abortion, it normalized cafeteria Catholicism in the pro-life movement. It also increasingly gloried in the grievance politics of Trumpist nativism, fake news about stolen elections and the real-life theft of Supreme Court seats. Besides his blaspheming, he scurrilously tweeted obscenities in reference to Joe Biden.
In the end, he degraded himself to the point of parody: a rogue priest with no meaningful accountability to anyone, propped up by sycophantic worshippers and enablers who deplore the integrity, authority and comprehensive social teaching of the Catholic Church as much as he does.
The link to his alleged sexual misbehavior is made by one of Pavone’s brave accusers, who, in spite of her trauma, has managed to think more reflectively about the movement than most of its own leaders. In The Pillar’s article she observed, “The pro-life movement, and people in the Church, have been groomed by him for all these years to think he’s the only pro-life voice and is the only priest who really speaks out about this.”
Pavone’s behavior rocked her faith, she said, and her “relationship with the pro-life movement was completely gutted.”
With or without Pavone, the Catholic Church will continue to advocate for the unborn in the context of its broader teaching about human dignity.
The pro-life movement will continue raking in cash for Republican campaigns and its own programming. The money-racket aspect of Priests for Life was evidently a part of why Pavone ran afoul of his bishop. Bishop Zurek characterized the organization as “a business that is quite lucrative which provides Father Pavone with financial independence from all legitimate ecclesiastical oversight.”
Pavone maintains he was victimized by the Vatican for his courageous work, and many in the pro-life movement will continue to regard Pavone’s accusers — as with Trump’s — either as liars or as expendable collateral damage. And he will continue to stand as a symbol of how the pro-life movement has been deformed by its totalizing tendencies.
( Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political strategist in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
This article has been updated to correct the title of Bishop Zurek.