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With Frank Pavone laicized, what will happen to Priests for Life?

Priests for Life headquarters. Credit: YouTube.

Frank Pavone, who was recently dismissed from the clerical state, has led the pro-life ministry Priests for Life for nearly 30 years. Pavone’s laiciziation raises questions about the future of Priests for Life, which is not a canonically-recognized Catholic organization, despite its name.

A spokesperson for Priests for Life told The Pillar Dec. 19 that no plans to change the organization’s leadership or name have been discussed since the Dec. 17 announcement of Pavone’s laicization.

The spokesperson noted that the organization's associate director, Fr. Denis Wilde, is an Augustinian priest.

Wilde is the only priest on the leadership team of Priests for Life. The organization’s spokesperson said Dec. 19 there are other priests who are affiliates of the organization, but did not indicate how many.

The page listing the board members of Priests for Life returns an error message at Priests for Life’s website. But a version of the page archived in June lists Wilde as the sole priest alongside seven lay people as board members of the organization.

Priests for Life's website says the organization has 60 full-time paid employees.

But despite that claim, the organization's annual report said it had a payroll of only $1.4 million, suggesting far fewer than 60 employees.

In 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, Priests for Life took in more than $1.5 million in donations and had some $3 million in assets, according to its own audited financial statements.

However many priests or employees the organization actually includes, it has in recent years become largely synonymous with Pavone, who did not found Priests for Life, but has led it for three decades.

Priests for Life was originally founded by a trio of priests in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, with the intention of helping form and equip Catholic priests to better support the pro-life movement.

According to its website, the group has its origins in a 1990 letter written to the priests of California, encouraging them to preach against a piece of abortion legislation on the ballot that year. The effort was led by San Francisco priest Fr. Lee Kaylor.

Kaylor was overwhelmed by the positive feedback to the initial mailing, and decided that his efforts should become a national organization, called Priests for Life. He founded the group in 1991, along with two other priests, Fr. Bob Kiefer of San Jose and Fr. Bob Cipriano of San Francisco.

Pavone, then a young priest in the Archdiocese of New York, was active in the Priests for Life group. When Kaylor stepped down as head of the organization to become an Air Force chaplain, Pavone took over, becoming the first full-time national director of Priests for Life in 1993.

Pavone asked his local bishop, Cardinal John O’Connor, to release him from diocesean obligations in order to run the organization. In the years that followed, Priests for Life grew significantly and expanded its work, while Pavone became a nationally recognized, and eventually controversial, figure in the pro-life movement.

In a March 1994 letter to Pavone, Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, acknowledged the work of the founders, saying, “Fathers Kaylor, Cipriano and Kiefer have a great deal to be proud of and thankful for, and I am sure that you will continue the work they started…”

A 2001 Priests for Life newsletter recognizes Kaylor’s role in the organization:

During this, the 10 year anniversary of Priests for Life, we think it is particularly fitting to honor Fr. Kaylor for his great vision and groundbreaking work. An extraordinarily humble man, he has never wished to take any credit for the accomplishments of Priests for Life, preferring instead, to call Fr. Pavone, the "Real Founder." Despite our attempts to give Fr. Kaylor credit on our stationary and to invite him onto our television shows, Fr. Kaylor has steadfastly chosen to remain in the background. He is perfectly content, he says, to have played "a small role" in launching this important organization a decade ago.

As Priests for Life grew, so did Pavone’s prominence. The organization describes him as being “recognized the world over as one of the most important leaders in the fight for life.”

Pavone had clashed with his ordinary, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, in recent years. In 2011, Zurek barred Pavone from priestly ministry outside the diocese, and ordered Pavone to both return to his diocese and take up a pastoral assignment.

At the time, the bishop cited “deep concerns regarding his stewardship of the finances of the Priests for Life (PFL) organization” which was generating more than $10 million in donations a year.

The Vatican’s Dicastery for Clergy cited “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of lawful instructions from his diocesan bishop” in explaining the laicization of Pavone, who currently lives in Orlando.

The dicastery noted that “since Priests for Life, Inc. is not a Catholic organization, Mr Pavone’s continuing role in it as a lay person would be entirely up to the leadership of that organization.”

Following his laicization, Pavone has suggested that he does not accept the Vatican’s decision and will continue to try to hold himself out as a cleric.

In a Dec. 17 video, Pavone appeared in a clerical shirt under a leather biker jacket and, despite his laicization, on his social media account he continues to describe himself as “Father” and a “Catholic priest.”

On Dec. 19, he tweeted that “my board, pastoral team & staff are 1000% united with me in moving forward with our work. We will not slow down. My vocation is to be a priest and a #prolife leader and I will not walk away from either one of those!”

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