A 2017 letter to then-Father Frank Pavone warned the now-laicized leader of Priests for Life that his bishop had decided to ask the Vatican to dismiss him from the clerical state, and gave the priest an opportunity to request laicization of his own accord.
The letter said that Pavone had been consistently disobedient to ecclesiastical authorities, and had left Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo with no hope of engaging constructively with Pavone.
“Because of your scandalous behavior, your involvement in partisan politics, your persistent disobedience, your lack of respect for legitimate ecclesial authority, control, and oversight, you leave me no choice than to ask you to present a petition to the Holy See for dispensation from all of the obligations of sacred ordination and return to the lay state,” the May 5, 2017 letter explained.
“If you choose not to petition for the dispensation… I will submit a petition to the Congregation for Clergy to request that the Roman Pontiff dismiss you from the clerical state ad poenam,” Zurek wrote.
The bishop’s letter sheds light on an announcement last month from U.S. apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who told bishops in a Dec. 13 memo that Pavone had been laicized. It also would appear to confirm The Pillar’s report that the laicization was conducted under the “special faculties II” provision of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy.
The letter, published on Pavone’s own website, detailed a number of fronts on which Pavone had reportedly disobeyed his bishop, in many cases for years.
It claimed that Pavone had been forbidden since 2014 from all “broadcasting in the media,” despite the priest’s penchant for regularly livestreaming Masses, along with frequent political video messages published on the social media channels of Priests for Life.
Zurek, Pavone’s diocesan bishop, said that the priest had been in “continual disobedience” of that prohibition for years.
The letter also said that since at least 2016, Pavone had been forbidden from celebrating Mass publicly or wearing clerical garb, and that the priest had continued doing so anyhow.
And it charged as “desecration of an altar” a controversial 2016 video, in which Pavone placed the body of a dead baby on a table resembling an altar, upon which he sometimes offered Mass, while urging Catholics to vote for Donald Trump.
Zurek wrote that Pavone had committed “exploitation of [an] aborted baby” in the production of the video.
“I agree that the death of millions of aborted babies is a holocaust, however, that reality does not justify your exploitation of an aborted baby,” Zurek wrote.
The letter also lamented Pavone’s “partisan rhetoric in favor of one political candidate and party,” and the priest’s “continued disobedience” regarding political involvement.
“You have disobeyed my predecessor Bishop Yanta, who ordered you in the past to avoid partisan politics and exploitation of aborted babies,” Zurek added.
The bishop also noted that Pavone committed a “direct violation of my directive and prohibition” in February 2017, when Pavone celebrated a funeral Mass for the deceased pro-life advocate Norma McCorvey - “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade - despite the restrictions on his faculties, and despite Zurek’s negative response to Pavone’s request for an exception.
Pavone’s laicization became public last month, after a letter from Archbishop Pierre to U.S. bishops was published online Dec. 17.
In the Dec. 13 memo, Pierre noted that Pavone is a longtime high-profile figure associated with the right-to-life movement, adding that his laicization “may, therefore, be a matter of interest among the faithful.”
In light of that “potential interest,” 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.”
Soon after that letter was published, Pavone live-streamed a long video in which he said that the charge of blasphemy followed an occasion in which he “got really angry at this one guy, it was about a year and half ago, this was bad, it was bad.”
In the Dec. 17 video Pavone appeared in a clerical shirt under a leather biker jacket, and initially claimed he had not been informed by anyone about his laicization. The priest continued to push back against the laicization, but eventually removed the title “Father” from his social media profiles, and began appearing in non-clerical clothing.
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, Zurek’s 2017 letter alleges a broad pattern of disobedience, and specific concern about the 2016 video including the remains of an aborted baby..
“Frank, you are incorrigible,” Zurek wrote.
“You have no respect for me, my office, my authority, my oversight. You have had no respect for Cardinal Dolan, not the directives mandated by the Congregation for Clergy. I have been dealing with your disobedience and scandalous behavior for years. There is nothing more I can do with you.”
For his part, Pavone has said that he will continue his pro-life advocacy, and noted that he can be eventually reinstated as a cleric by a future pope.
Pavone remains the national director of Priests for Life, a national pro-life apostolate, which in turn supports Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion healing retreats, manages a publishing division, engages in television production work, and livestreams daily Masses.
Since 2016, Pavone has posted tweets, Facebook statuses, videos, and other social media postings urging support for the Republican party, calling into question the validity of the 2020 presidential election, and disparaging Democratic lawmakers. Pavone served as a member of the campaign advisory group “Catholics for Trump” during the election.
Pavone was ordained a priest by Cardinal John O'Connor of New York in 1988, and has served in pro-life leadership positions full-time since 1993.
Originally incardinated in the Archdiocese of New York, the priest 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.