1. In the previous interview, you told us that you and your fulltime pro-life ministry received a rather cold reception from Bishop Patrick Zurek when he came to Amarillo in 2008. Did things improve as time went on?

No, they got worse, although with the wider Church, our support grew stronger than ever.

But regarding Bishop Zurek, let me give you the example of when we saved Baby Joseph in Canada in 2011. You can see www.BabyJosephCentral.com for details, but this was a child who needed a tracheotomy, and when the Canadian healthcare system refused to give it to him, the family asked for our help. Our supporters lobbied the hospital and got them to let us take him to the United States, where a Catholic hospital helped him. Everyone was rejoicing.

Except Bishop Zurek.

He said to me, “You probably shouldn’t have done it.” He said people were donating to Priests for Life in the USA instead of Priests for Life-Canada (a separate organization).

Then, early in 2012, Priests for Life was the fourth group to sue the Obama-Biden Administration for trying to force us to include abortion in the health care plans we offer our employees. Various Catholic ministries and even dioceses joined in these lawsuits. We ultimately prevailed, and again everyone was rejoicing.

Except Bishop Zurek.

Instead of thanking or encouraging us in the slightest, all he could do was ask why we were raising money for our expenses in pursuing the case. (The fact was that our attorneys were handling the case pro bono, which spared us a lot of expense, but not all. But the bishop didn’t bother to ask about those details.)

Another time I was with Bishop Zurek, he said that we at Priests for Life “were not really in line with the US bishops,” but he couldn’t specify what he meant. Meanwhile, USCCB General Secretary Msgr. David Malloy (now a bishop himself) told me that many bishops had indicated to him their gratitude for how Priests for Life always promoted the bishops’ documents and teachings.

One aspect of my work is that I am pastoral director of Rachel’s Vineyard, throughout the world. It is the largest ministry for helping those who have had abortions to find forgiveness and healing. Many dioceses have utilized its services over the years, including Amarillo. Bishop Zurek decided he didn’t want Rachel’s Vineyard operating in his diocese anymore and withdrew all his support from this healing work.

We have also always maintained an advisory board of bishops. At a certain point I started getting letters from some of these bishops abruptly resigning from the advisory board, without any conversation with me. Some of them told me in writing that they had done this because Bishop Zurek called and asked them to. They didn’t refer to any reasons why they couldn’t support the work itself.

  1. Fr. Frank, in any diocese, as you know, the bishop is not the only official. There is a Vicar for Priests, who is supposed to help the priests of that diocese. Did you discuss these matters with that person in Amarillo?

I certainly did.

The vicar’s name was Msgr. Harold Waldow (he is, unfortunately, now deceased). He told me in 2010 that Bishop Zurek did not have my best interests at heart and that I should seek another diocese. A letter he wrote explained, in reference to things the bishop asked me for, “I can state unequivocally that Father Pavone responded promptly, respectfully, and appropriately.” He then wrote about a meeting he attended with me and the bishop, “Father Pavone related his discernment of many years’ duration of having been called to pro-life ministry in the Church and his concomitant frustration at the experience of failure in achieving the same within existing ecclesial polity. It was an open, respectful revelation on Father Pavone’s part.”

So how would you expect a bishop respond to that?

Msgr. Waldow continues, “Bishop Zurek responded with an expression of anger and withdrawal from the meeting. At that time I informed Father Pavone that it was my personal opinion that he should seek another bishop/diocese.”

  1. But while all this was happening, was the bishop allowing you to continue your traveling, speaking, broadcasting, and national pro-life work? You were keeping quite busy with it, weren’t you?

I was keeping very busy with Priests for Life, making several speaking trips per week, broadcasting on EWTN and other outlets, training priests at the invitation of many dioceses and pro-life groups, overseeing the world’s largest ministry for healing after abortion, and managing a growing staff with numerous other pro-life projects.

But then, without any warning whatsoever, Bishop Zurek sent a letter not just to me but to all the bishops of the country (and simultaneously leaked by someone to the media) saying that he had “suspended” me and wanted me to stop traveling, stop broadcasting, stop doing Priests for Life work and that within a few days I had to return to Amarillo for an undetermined period of prayer and reflection.

He told me I had to stay at the convent of a group of sisters, the “Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ” outside of Amarillo. They told me they had been given no advance preparation or explanation as to why I was there. The priest with whom I met at the bishop’s request likewise had been given no background on the events leading up to me being there.

On the very day the bishop asked me to report to the diocese, September 13, 2011, he took off on a plane for a trip to Brazil.

Now the word “suspended” is a canonical term indicating that a priest may no longer function as a priest because he’s being punished for having done something wrong. I presume the bishop knew this. However, that’s not what he was doing, because he wanted me to function as a priest within the Diocese (but only there), and had not indicated any wrongdoing that would merit suspension. But he used that word, and the media picked up on it, including the Catholic News Service and the Associated Press. The word was out, I was “suspended.”

When the Catholic News Service called me after publicly saying I was suspended, I said to them, “I have good news for you – I’m not suspended.” (Fast forward to my trip to the Vatican to sort this out, and the second in command at the Congregation for Clergy said to me in Italian, “Non sei sospeso” – “You are not suspended.”)

As soon as I reported, as ordered, to Amarillo, I sat down with Msgr. Harold Waldow, who was running things in the bishop’s absence as Vicar of Clergy and Moderator of the Curia. I asked him to write a public letter clarifying my status and he did so right away. The letter pointed out that I was a priest “in good standing” and that the bishop’s action “does not mean that Father Pavone is being charged with any malfeasance.”

My main canonical advisor, Fr. Dave Deibel, also wrote a letter to all the bishops stating that what Bishop Zurek said in his letter to the bishops – namely, that I wasn’t being transparent about the finances of Priests for Life — was simply not true. We had annual independent audits, which were all good, and we sent to the bishop all the financial information he requested.

Now the bishop, on the other hand, would never acknowledge receiving the financial reports we sent him until we insisted with his attorney that he do so. He finally sent us a letter acknowledging receipt, and then on November 6thsaid he would review all the material and then convene a meeting to resolve any remaining questions.

That November 6 letter was the last thing I ever heard from him about our finances. He never convened the meeting and didn’t get back to us anymore about it.

Meanwhile, we continued to enjoy the support of many bishops.

(Fast forward – the Vatican later confirmed that Priests for Life finances were in order and well-administered. Incidentally, for a long time I chose not to receive a Priests for Life salary, used my own savings as donations to the ministry, and currently have an annual salary of $14,681 (fourteen thousand six-hundred and eighty-one)).

  1. Did the Bishop put a timetable on your stay in Amarillo, and how was it resolved?

The bishop gave no timetable or deadline.

I appealed his action to the Vatican, which is always an option for a priest who feels he has been wronged. I followed all the procedures under the guidance of a team of canonical experts both in the US and in Rome.

Meanwhile, every communication with the bishop made things worse, and my canonical advisors told me not to meet with him until the Vatican ruled on my appeal. In the midst of this, the bishop even asked the sisters where I was staying to place one of his letters to me on a consecrated altar prior to me saying mass, so that I would see it when I kissed the altar at the start of Mass!

The Vatican eventually upheld my appeal, saying that the bishop had acted wrongly, that I was not suspended, and that I could resume my ministry outside the diocese.

It was already May of 2012 when this decision by the Vatican came out. The bishop posted on his website that the Vatican had upheld my position. Then I had a phone conversation with him, in which he told me that I could resume my ministry of travel and broadcasting, just as I had been doing before, “without restriction.”

But, believe it or not, about a week later I was in his office and he completely reversed himself, saying I could not travel, speak, broadcast, or even concelebrate Mass in pubic lest people see me and be reminded of Priests for Life.

The reason he gave was expressed in a letter he later sent me, saying that Archbishop Celso Morga, the second in charge at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy (the office to which I had made my appeal and won) told him he could not currently allow me to resume my pro-life ministry outside the diocese.

It had to wait, he claimed, for the Vatican to look over our ministry, by means of something called a “Visitation,” which basically means that a bishop they appoint would come and meet with our team and see how we do things, and make a report with recommendations as to how to improve. We welcomed that and did it.

But I flew to Rome before the Visitation and met with Archbishop Morga, and asked the Archbishop if what Bishop Zurek had told me was accurate. Archbishop Morga told him no, that this was not the case. On the contrary, the Archbishop said, he had instructed the bishop to “be generous” in his permission to Fr. Frank to continue his Priests for Life work.

A letter I received from the Congregation for Clergy made clear that Bishop Zurek “is entirely free to grant you permission to minister outside of the Diocese.”

He was not generous and did not restore this permission during all the time that the Visitation was taking place.

  1. What was the result of the Vatican Visitation?

It was a good report, with recommendations on how to improve things based on the canonical structure we had at the time. However, the Vatican made clear in its report that these were only recommendations, not orders. None of them were obligatory; they were all optional.

Nevertheless, we moved ahead to implement most of them.

Of particular importance was this point in the Vatican’s report (Prot. N. 20133327):

“The financial administration of Priests for Life {Priests for Life} has been publicly called into question. Despite various accounts to the contrary, it is the opinion of the Apostolic Visitator that the Association has been relatively well administered financially… There has been an annual Audit of the Association every year…[T]he work and finances of PFL are in order… [T]he administrative costs of PFL are in keeping with other groups receiving similar funding in the United States.”

  1. Given the clean report on finances, did Bishop Zurek repair the damage he had done to your reputation?

No, he said nothing and did nothing to reverse the damage he had done by writing to the bishops that my financial management of Priests for Life was questionable. Media reports persist to this day that large sums of money were unaccounted for. We don’t know what they are referring to; we even had sent the bishop our check registry!

So seeing that he was going to do nothing about restoring our reputation, I asked the Vatican to intervene. Remember, the report referenced above was not a public document…so while they cleared our name internally, nobody on the outside knew about it.

The Vatican’s response was that since we were an “Association of the Faithful” based in New York, then under canon law was Cardinal Timothy Dolan who would be the appropriate person to restore our reputation.

We approached him, but he imposed a whole new set of requirements, including a “forensic audit,” carried out by one of his associates, but at our expense, and gave me a list of people whom he wanted to be on our Board of Directors, including one of the bishops in his own Ecclesiastical Province who, the Cardinal said, could serve as Board Chairman in place of me.

I began the process of cooperating with the Cardinal but all my advisors – civil, canonical and financial – told me they could not go along with the Cardinal’s requests, and respectfully let him know why. In short, a) it is the Board of the Directors of Priests for Life who is responsible for electing the members of the Board and its Chair, and b) no forensic audit is needed in the absence of any accusation of wrongdoing and no results of such an audit will satisfy critics who lack goodwill.

Our position was – and remains now – that if someone has a question or objection about our finances, they should ask the question or raise the objection specifically. Nobody has done so, then or now, including the bishops.

And somehow in all of this, Bishop Zurek and Cardinal Dolan maintained that I – Fr. Frank Pavone – was being uncooperative and disobedient.

For that to make any sense whatsoever, one would have to posit that the management of Priests for Life occurs without any Board or legal or financial advisors, or any autonomy – but simply depends in every way on the decision of one person. That’s not the reality.

So in the end, Cardinal Dolan did not clear our good name as the Vatican told us he could; rather, he made it worse by telling the Vatican and the media that he was “cutting ties” with the organization.

With all due respect, we pointed out that the ongoing success of our ministry – a success that continues to this day – has had nothing to do with any “ties” we had with the Cardinal.

And as if all this were not enough drama, the story was about to get even more interesting…

(to be continued…)