A former board member of Priests for Life has called for laicized priest Frank Pavone to step down as the organization’s head, and for an independent investigation to be carried out into the allegations of sexual misconduct against Pavone.
“[F]or the good of the Church and the pro-life movement, it is necessary that an immediate, impartial and independent investigation take place into the recent allegations against Frank Pavone,” said Andrew Smith, who served as a Priests for Life employee from 2000-2004 and as a board member from 2014-2021.
In a Feb. 10 statement sent to The Pillar, Smith said he believes an investigation is needed to “ensure that a thorough examination of the conduct of Frank Pavone, his treatment of the women in his employment and the concerns surrounding financial payouts can be addressed and resolved in a fair manner.”
“It would also be appropriate for Frank Pavone to step down from any leadership position he currently holds, in any organization, to not only ensure the integrity of the investigation but the integrity of the mission as well,” he added.
“There is a need to step back, discern, investigate and evaluate future actions in a transparent way since the actions of Priests For Life affect so many in the movement.”
Smith's statement came after The Pillar began reporting last month the accounts of women who say they experienced from Pavone sexual harassment, coercive sexual touching, unwanted sexual advances, and "grooming behavior."
One woman told The Pillar that while she was a young employee at Priests for Life in the late 1990s, Pavone, then a cleric, had manipulated her in a relationship of "spiritual fatherhood," touched her body inappropriately, made an unwanted visit to her hotel room during a Priests for Life trip, during which he sexually propositioned her, and later coerced her into an inappropriate situation in his private quarters, in which he both propositioned her and insisted on brushing her hair.
The woman reported the misconduct to the Diocese of Amarillo in 2009.
Another woman, Mary Worthington, told The Pillar that when she worked at Priests for Life after college, Pavone frequently touched her hair, lower back, shoulders, and buttocks, and required her to work in his bedroom and private living quarters.
Worthington told The Pillar that Pavone's misconduct was reported to both the Diocese of Amarillo and to Priests for Life officials, one of whom reportedly excused Pavone's conduct as "affectionate."
Another former employee told The Pillar that Pavone exhibited "red flag" behavior when he required her to work in his bedroom and private quarters.
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Pavone has not denied the allegations, but has claimed instead they have already been "addressed."
He told told The Pillar on Wednesday that: "I am enormously saddened by recent efforts of some to revisit old accusations that contain numerous inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and mistruths, that have already been addressed.”
“Over a decade ago, my bishop at that time thoroughly investigated these claims and confirmed that I was in good standing and fully suitable for ministry.”
After he said last month that allegations had been "resolved satisfactorily," one of his alleged victims pushed back.
“I can't imagine what gave Frank Pavone or the Diocese of Amarillo the impression that the case was ‘resolved satisfactorily,’ and the bishop expressing his confidence in Pavone and his suitability for ministry was definitely not my impression during the phone conversation we had,” the woman told The Pillar.
“I was never notified if Frank Pavone or PFL even knew about the accusations. Nothing was shared with me about how the diocese handled the case. I had a 20 minute conversation with Bishop Zurek,” she added.
“A 20 minute phone conversation with a bishop, to my mind, is not the complete handling of a complaint of sexual misconduct; I don't believe that the Diocese of Amarillo's response was comprehensive, compassionate, or a just whole.”
For his part, Smith said he had been shocked by Priests for Life’s response over the past two months to Pavone’s laicization, which became public in December, and the misconduct allegations raised against him by several women in recent weeks.
“I have been very surprised to see the reaction from Priests For Life has been solely one of victimization and self-aggrandizement,” Smith said. “I frankly expected better. I have seen no public expression of sorrow or regret at these events, in interview after interview all that has been claimed is victimhood.”
“Having only seen cold and clinical statements and a desperate attempt to blame church authorities for all problems, I watch it all with my jaw dropping,” he added.
“Barreling on as if nothing had happened or worse, as if the laicization and accusations mean nothing at all, it seems to me that events have come to a point at which more public action needs to be taken.”
Smith argued that with Pavone serving as chairman of the board for Priests for Life, and with many paid staff members serving as board members, the organization itself cannot conduct an impartial investigation.
“Hence the need for an immediate, impartial and independent investigation,” he said, adding that “[i]t would be reasonable for donations to Priests For Life be withheld until such time as a thorough investigation takes place and these matters resolved.”
Fr Stephen Imbarrato, who served as a staff staff pastoral team member of Priests for Life from 2015-2018, also released a public statement Friday, echoing Smith’s call for Pavone to resign, and for an investigation to be conducted.
The priest stressed that the call for an independent investigation is particularly important because of Priests for Life’s prominence as a pro-life organization and its “revenues in excess of $10 million a year with thousands of donors.”
Imbarrato said that during his time with the organization, he had counseled a woman who received compensation for harassment she experienced while an employee at Priests for Life.
He also raised questions about how Priests for Life processes harassment complaints, and whether the aborted baby used by Pavone in a 2016 campaign video for Donald Trump had been appropriately handled and stored.
Other pro-life leaders have also raised concern about Pavone.
Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, told The Pillar this week that pro-life leaders have been split over how to respond to the claims against Pavone.
“We’re still looking for answers, but many of us are asking ourselves really tough questions about working with Frank Pavone and Priests for Life in the future,” he said.
“I have been trying without success to get straight answers from Frank. He really needs to make a public statement about this and come clean about what did or did not happen, and what steps have been taken to truly resolve this scandal,” Scheidler said.
He added that he believes pro-life leaders need to give a witness of personal integrity if their work is to be effective.
“The pro-life movement has to be first and foremost a pro-woman movement. Women have to know that they can trust us, that they count on us in their hour of need,” he said. “Priests For Life runs what they call the world’s largest post-abortion ministry. How can women trust Priests for Life when these allegations are hanging in the air like this?”
“American women need to know that the pro-life movement stands with them. We stand with them when they’re facing an untimely pregnancy. We stand with them when they’re abandoned by their husbands and boyfriends for refusing to get abortions. We stand with them when they’re struggling with the aftermath of abortion. And we stand with them when they are victims of sexual assault.”
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Pavone, who became the director of Priests for Life in 1993, was originally incardinated in the Archdiocese of New York.
He transferred his incardination to the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas in 2005, with plans to begin a religious order. The plan fizzled, and Pavone soon found himself clashing with Amarillo's Bishop Patrick Zurek, who was appointed to lead the diocese three years after Pavone arrived there.
In September 2011, Pavone had been restricted from ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo, and directed by Bishop Patrick Zurek “to spend time in prayer and reflection,” while living at a convent of religious sisters.
In a 2011 letter to U.S. bishops, Zurek said the restriction was borne of concern about the financial condition of Priests for Life.
“The PFL has become a business that is quite lucrative which provides Father Pavone with financial independence from all legitimate ecclesiastical oversight. There have been persistent questions and concerns by clergy and laity regarding the transactions of millions of dollars of donations to the PFL from whom the donors have a rightful expectation that the monies are being used prudently,” Zurek wrote.
The bishop also lamented Pavone’s “inflated” ego, and the priest’s apparent “sense of self-importance and self-determination.”
After Pavone made an appeal to the Congregation for Clergy, the priest was eventually permitted to resume active ministry outside the diocese, but by at least 2016 was again prohibited by his bishop from publicly offering the Eucharist.
Last December, Pavone's laicization was made public after a letter to U.S. bishops from apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre was published online.
The nuncio sent to the bishops a brief statement from the Vatican’s Dicastery for Clergy, which said Pavone had been laicized after “canonical proceedings” found him guilty of “blasphemous communications on social media, and of persistent disobedience of lawful instructions from his diocesan bishop.”
The Vatican’s statement said that Pavone had been given “ample opportunity” to defend himself, and was given several chances to accept his bishop’s authority but had not done so and had given “no reasonable justification for his actions.”
While both Pavone and some supporters have suggested his laicization was a kind of political persecution because of the former cleric’s pro-life convictions, a 2017 letter to Pavone from Bishop Zurek alleges a broad pattern of disobedience.
The Priests for Life board has indicated its full support for Pavone, who has suggested that his laicization could be overturned by a future pope.