Indeed, the lesson of Pavone’s rehabilitation may be that in today’s Catholic Church, it helps to have friends in high places, and to be battling on an issue — abortion — that is such a priority for Rome, especially during a critical presidential race. Whatever PFL’s financial woes, keeping Pavone in business trumped the usual niceties of ecclesiastical life.
That suits Pavone just fine. Ever since he took over Priests for Life 20 years ago, Pavone’s intensity and independence — many use stronger adjectives — have often wound up irritating his local bishop. (Pavone has no formal attachment to the Archdiocese of New York other than being allowed to work in Staten Island, but he recently criticized New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan for inviting Obama to the upcoming Al Smith Dinner for charity, calling it a “scandal.”)
Pavone is unapologetic.
“Some people have called me too aggressive. Well, too bad.” The fight against abortion is too important to worry about ruffling feathers, he said, and the reality is that church efforts to combat abortion are too tame — the hierarchy’s deeds don’t match their words. And that sends the wrong message.
“There can be heated debate. There can be loyal opposition. That is how the church grows,” he said. “The solution is not to lock me up in some convent. The solution is to sit down at the table like adults.”
Pavone came to Amarillo from New York in 2005 because he and then-Cardinal Edward Egan did not get along. Amarillo’s bishop at the time promised him the freedom to pursue his anti-abortion ministry as he liked.
But Pavone’s grand plans to build a $130 million seminary in Amarillo quickly went south. When Zurek was installed as the new bishop in 2008, he demanded a full accounting of Pavone’s budget, one of the largest among anti-abortion groups in the U.S. Last September, tensions came to a head after Zurek said Pavone was not cooperating.
Documents that emerged in the wake of Zurek’s criticisms showed that PFL was running a $1.4 million deficit despite collecting at least $10 million a year, and it was burning through its reserves. Key Internal Revenue Service statements had not been filed, the group had been fined in Pennsylvania for soliciting donations without authorization, and hundreds of thousands of dollars had been shifted among various PFL entities.
It was a mess, and it led to what Pavone calls his “exile in Amarillo.”
Pavone’s Twitter feed exploded with indignation at the restrictions, and he used it to relay expressions of support from top churchmen from around the world. Even as some anti-abortion activists rebuked Pavone for being insubordinate, others launched a “Free Father Frank” campaign and started protesting at Amarillo churches. One group flew a banner over the city with photos of aborted fetuses and an appeal to let Pavone continue to fight against abortion rights.