The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, has had a lifelong fascination with roller coasters. He grew up next door to the famous Rye Playland in New York’s Westchester County, home of the famous “Dragon Coaster” featured in the Tom Hanks movie “Big.”
But the greatest ride for the Port Chester, New York, native is perhaps about to begin. Friday’s reversal of the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide is almost guaranteed to trigger protests and legislative battles as the abortion question would be returned to state legislatures.
Father Pavone is beloved by supporters, some 65,000 of whom he estimates are responsible for between $10 million and $12 million in annual donations to the nonprofit group. He is a staple on conservative-leaning radio and television programs. And he regularly hosts strategy sessions with dozens of national pro-life leaders at the group’s Florida headquarters.
But he’s had issues: In 2016, a video he posted online with an aborted fetus stirred criticism when some said it had been placed on an altar when it was actually displayed on a table used in the Priests for Life offices.
And he’s in a conflict with the Most Rev. Patrick J. Zurek, Bishop of Amarillo, Texas, who’s tried to restrict his ministry, even though the Vatican has sided with Father Pavone when the priest has appealed to Rome, something he’s permitted to do.
Now that the high court has overturned Roe, Father Pavone says he is ready for the ups and downs that are certain to follow.
“This is a situation of mixed emotion,” Father Pavone, 63, said during a recent video interview in which he discussed the May 2 leak of the majority opinion reversing two previous high court decisions affirming a constitutional right to an abortion.
“On the one hand, it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness. What are people doing leaking these decisions?’ It’s unprecedented,” he said. “But that really has been dwarfed by the sentiment of just rejoicing, because this is something that we’ve been looking forward to for almost 50 years, and [that I’ve been] working for. marching for, praying for, and sacrificing for the last 30 years.”
A reversal of Roe, he pointed out, does not outlaw abortion nationally, but rather returns the decision to each of the nation’s state legislatures. Some states have already passed bills solidifying a right to abortion in their states; others have either proposed legislation or even suggested amending their state constitutions to safeguard access to the procedure.
Overturning the 1973 high court decision is “not the final victory, but it’s a milestone victory,” he said, adding, “it changes the dynamics of the movement, it opens up the possibility for more work by the legislators, both in the states and Congress.”
Began in high school
It was January of 1976, Father Pavone recalled, that he attended his first March for Life event, in Port Chester, and despite the “bitterly cold day,” he said, he noticed a large crowd and wondered, “What are these people motivated by?”
New York’s state legislature has legalized abortion in 1970 — three years before Roe — but there was still a religiously and politically diverse opposition to the procedure, he said. The movement drew his interest, and he began a “rediscovery” of his Roman Catholic faith.
“I started going to church every morning before going to school, I studied the Bible more, I started praying more,” Father Pavone recalled.
He added, “I started looking for seminaries and I went in right after high school. … The path I took basically took 12 years from when I first went into seminary until I was a priest.”
His first assignment was “a pretty large, busy parish on Staten Island,” one of the five boroughs of New York City. While he taught the Bible in the parish, he also participated in pro-life activities in the New York Archdiocese and he said he experienced “a call within my call” to continue.
In 1993, Cardinal John O’Connor gave him permission to serve as director of Priests for Life (PFL), which was intended to be an order of priests supporting pro-life ministry in the church. But Cardinal O’Connor died in 2000 before the order could be established and his successor, Cardinal Edward Egan, was less enthused about the idea, Father Pavone said: “He began causing a little trouble for me.”
He told The Christian Review website that Cardinal Egan would not allow him to continue leading Priests for Life; ultimately a “receiving bishop” was found in Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo, a onetime PFL member before becoming a bishop. That was in 2005, and Bishop Yanta retired three years later. Bishop Patrick Zurek, who has headed the diocese since 2008, has attempted to block his ministry, the priest says, including a transfer to another diocese.
This has left Father Pavone with diminished enthusiasm for the Amarillo diocese: “They lie about me, they request documentation and then don’t acknowledge it, they violate canon law and impose unjust penalties. Not responding is the least of their vices. Bishop Zurek is an embarrassment to the Church; he should not be a bishop,” he wrote in response to a reporter’s question.
Fetus display prompts apology
On November 6, 2016, Father Pavone posted a Facebook video in which he spoke against abortion and displayed an aborted fetus, which he said was later buried “with the assistance of a funeral director.”
Critics claimed the fetus had been placed on an “altar,” which Father Pavone said was not the case: “This was a table in our office, not a consecrated altar in a chapel,” he wrote in a letter to supporters.
The outcry was swift, and five months later Father Pavone issued a public apology: “I never want people to think that I would misuse a sacred object or a sacred space. The fact that this did not occur during a [worship] service, nor in an official chapel, nor on a consecrated altar is not even the point,” he wrote.
Father Pavone added, “I also apologize to my bishop for the distress this has caused him personally, and I thank him for the guidance he has offered me in this matter. That guidance has assisted me in carrying out my ministry as a priest.”
Despite the apology, Father Pavone’s efforts to transfer to another, more friendly diocese are apparently in bureaucratic limbo. The Amarillo diocese did not respond to repeated requests for comment. One critic asked regarding the priest, “So where is he? Where’s he want to jump to now?”
Father Pavone told The Washington Times he’s still attached to the Amarillo diocese: “My status with that diocese is that I am canonically ‘incardinated’ there, but we have been in dispute with them at the Vatican for years, up to and including the present, because the bishop keeps trying to block my priestly and pro-life work.”
And how will the Supreme Court’s decision affect his ministry? “The work will be, I suspect, in fact, I know, it’ll be as busy as ever,” he said. “I’m constantly invited to speak, we do publishing and I’ve been constantly writing and regular op-eds and interviews. …. I love every aspect. I never get tired of it.”