For about a year now, These Stone Walls has had a link to Priests for Life, one of the strongest and most vocal pro-life organizations with oversight from the Catholic Church. So when news began to circulate that Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life since 1993, was “recalled” to his diocese – the Diocese of Amarillo – I paid attention, as did many.
Before commenting on the justice or injustice of what has occurred to date in this matter, however, I must comment on the context. It has become clear to me even from behind these stone walls that not all is as it seems. Generally, a matter such as this would generate some dialogue within the Church, perhaps even in the Catholic media, but that would be the extent of its interest. This matter between Father Frank Pavone and Amarillo Bishop Patrick Zurek, however, has also become fodder for comments in the secular media providing fuel for the speculation and controversy now surrounding Father Pavone.
What exactly is the controversy? Father Frank Pavone has been recalled to his diocese, the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, by his bishop. Father Pavone has been neither suspended nor disciplined for any cause. A Catholic News Service account included some clarification of this by Msgr. Harold Waldow, Vicar for Clergy in the Diocese of Amarillo:
“Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, remains a priest in good standing in the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas . . . Msgr. Harold Waldow told CNS that Bishop Patrick J. Zurek only suspended Father Pavone’s ministry outside of the diocese because the well-known pro-life priest is needed for work in Amarillo.”(Catholic News Service, Sept. 14,2011.)
But there remains some taint upon Father Pavone. This matter between a priest and his bishop has become a matter of public dispute, and that itself is a violation of Father Pavone’s rights under Church law. After writing a letter to the nation’s bishops describing his suspension of Father Pavone’s ministry outside his own diocese, the bishop reportedly released the letter publicly. That seems to be what sparked their differences thrusting this matter into a public forum, but without any clear allegation of wrongdoing.
Brian Fraga wrote an informative article about this in Our Sunday Visitor (“Pro-life priest ‘baffled’ by bishop’s shutdown,” OSV, October 2, 2011). He cited the broad support that has emerged for Father Pavone including from the Priests for Life Board of Directors, from the National Pro-Life Council, and other corners. Dr. Alveda King, niece of the late Rev. Martin Luther King and a staunch pro-life advocate, has released a powerfully supportive statement about Father Pavone and Priests for Life.
I have believed from the outset that the hype about all this has little to do with Father Frank Pavone and Bishop Zurek. It has to do with Priests for Life and its vocally Catholic pro-life stance. There is an agenda out there – an agenda with tentacles that have reached deeply into the arena of Catholic life – that would be encouraged by the diminishment or outright destruction of the Church’s pro-life ministry. In this entire matter, it is not only Father Pavone whose reputation is on the line. It is also the Church’s pro-life stance, consistently undermined by those who want compromise with a secular agenda in the culture war.
The demise of Priests for Life would be a great trophy for that agenda. I am no conspiracy theorist, but I can’t help notice that this story is unfolding nationally just as a Presidential Primary is taking shape, and the culture war is gearing up for battle.
A NOD TO SECULAR SABOTAGE
In a chapter entitled “Self-Sabotage: Catholicism” in his book, Secular Sabotage (Faith Words, 2009), Catholic League President Bill Donohue pointed out that dissent in the Church’s pro-life ministry is not as simple as some trendy left-wing Catholics promoting abortion. Very few people of even the remotest Christian persuasion actually promote abortion as a societal good. What Bill Donohue pointed out was something much more subtle. There is a growing consensus among left-wing Catholics that the Church has simply lost the battle for life and should just move on.
Please note here that I do not use the term “left-wing Catholics” in any derogatory sense. I spent much of my life and ministry squarely in that camp. So did Father Richard John Neuhaus and Cardinal Avery Dulles, two exemplary Churchmen to whose memory we have dedicated These Stone Walls. Their drift to the right is far more a story of their embracing the great adventure of orthodoxy to the Magisterial authority of the Church – an authority that took precedence for them above any trendy political ideology.
My own drift away from the left followed their same example. It marked the official end of my adolescence that the life of the Church took precedence over my own sometimes highly misinformed publicly dissenting points of view.
Part of the agenda among the more radical wing of the Catholic left has been to get about the business of removing any Magisterial authority from our faith experience. The goal is to carve out a distinctly American Catholic church with identifiably American Catholic values that mirror the now disintegrating American wing of the Church of England, the Episcopal church. But that’s a whole other blog post for some other day – such as next week, perhaps.
It’s time for American Catholic liberals to see and admit that their own views and causes are being hi-jacked by this radical wing. For them, organizations like Priests for Life are seen as an anachronistic hindrance to social progress. A nice little scandal undermining Priests for Life would be most welcomed in some circles right about now, not least among them some purportedly Catholic circles.
But there isn’t a scandal. Father Frank Pavone hasn’t been accused of anything, though I do worry about his extreme vulnerability. There are agendas at work even in our Church that would be bolstered by the destruction of Father Pavone, his career, and his reputation. That fact must be a part of the equation as Catholics evaluate this story. Father Frank Pavone first was a target long before he was a suspect.
I have a personal example of how this works right here at These Stone Walls. For over two years now, TSW has presented the views of a priest claiming to be falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned. So much of what I have written has been in direct confrontation with the agendas and claims of victim groups like SNAP and Catholic “reform” groups like Voice of the Faithful. Some of my postings about the Catholic League report, “SNAP Exposed” have been confrontational. My three-part series, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused” made a very controversial case for why accusers should be named. Nothing flies in the face of the cult of victimhood like that particular point of view.
But very few people disagreed with me or attacked these statements and positions. At first, I wondered if these controversial posts were even noticed, but then I learned they were widely disseminated. Even the Spanish-language news network, Univision, posted links to “When Priests Are Falsely Accused” on their website, as did National Public Radio and many international secular sites. Very few people disagreed with me or attacked these posts.
The very worst attack – though a rather wimpy one – was a one-line comment from SNAP director, David Clohessy. Commenting on the Spero News version of my TSW post,”Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” David Clohessy called me “a dangerous and demented man.” Maybe he didn’t read “Sticks and Stones: My Incendiary Blog Post on Catholic Civil Discourse.”
But in contrast to the lack of any real attacks on These Stone Walls was a barrage of nasty e-mail attacks when I posted a clearly pro-life article, “The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Civil Rights and the Right to Life” last January. I got clobbered. Some of the messages called me all sorts of names, denounced These Stone Walls, and denigrated those who assist me as its editors. It was perfectly okay with these people if I remind Catholics that some priests are falsely accused and some Americans are wrongly imprisoned. But how dare I use a Catholic blog to post a reasoned and thoughtful defense of the Catholic Church’s pro-life position and why it should not be compromised?
So that’s it then. I can write that a lot of men and women have committed fraud by falsely accusing Catholic priests of decades-old abuses. I can write that some of our bishops have been unwittingly complicit in this fraud and have left their priests vulnerable by blindly settling virtually every claim. I can even write that some of the purported “victims” are in fact criminals who should have their names and their claims exposed before any real due process and justice can take place. Not many on the left or right had much to say in response to any of that. But when I wrote about why abortion is a basic civil rights issue, some Catholics called me a “predator priest who should be silenced by the Church.” One writer called for prison officials to confiscate my typewriter.
It all reminded me of a troubling conversation I had with a prisoner two years ago. He was a career criminal; a gangster, a thief and a thug, who came to my door one day. “I have a question,” he said:
“Can you explain to me why all these Catholics can say they are protecting children when they scream about 30 or 40 year old claims of child abuse, but then have nothing to say about the fourteen million American babies sacrificed in abortions in just the last decade?”
It’s a hard question for which I have no answer. But I explained to him that no one in our Church will call him a gangster, a thief, or a thug unless he asks a question like that too loudly.
This was when I really came to admire Father Frank Pavone. I became aware of how visible the target on his back really is. As I wrote two weeks ago at the end of “Thy Brother’s Keeper,” I bow to Father Pavone’s faithful witness to both the truth and to his duty as a priest which is to preserve both his obligations and his rights under Church law. The bottom line is that anyone who thinks his bishop is going to protect his rights has not been paying attention in the last ten years.
BISHOPS AS PROSECUTORS
I cannot speak to the internal disagreements between Father Frank Pavone and Bishop Patrick Zurek. I know none of the details. But I can speak in a broader sense of the necessity for any priest in the current climate to preserve his rights under Church law. I can only relate some of what transpired with my own bishop in a canonical proceeding to shed light on some of what may be happening behind the scenes in the Diocese of Amarillo.
Father Pavone came under recent attack in some circles because his bishop scheduled a personal meeting which Father Pavone declined to attend. There were some people – some very well intentioned – who saw in this some shades of culpability on the part of Father Pavone, using it to cast suspicion on his own transparency and desire to cooperate with his bishop.
It is likely, however, that Bishop Zurek has declined to allow a meeting to take place with Father Pavone’s Canonical Advocate present. I do not know this for certain, but I have read that Father Pavone’s Canonical Advocate has requested mediation in this matter between Father Pavone and his bishop. It was apparently on the advice of the Advocate that Father Pavone declined to meet without his Advocate or a mediator present. Both Father Pavone and his Canonical Advocate, Father David Deibel, J.D., J.C.L. have come under some public fire for this.
Church Law insists that any priest in a canonical forum has a right to advocacy. I stand by what I wrote in “Thy Brother’s Keeper“:
“I bow also to Father Pavone’s resolve to protect his rights under the higher authority of the law of the Church, for the [Dallas] Charter makes one thing clear now: Some bishops will neither protect nor respect those rights.”
I speak from experience. Throughout the last decade of attempting to defend myself before both a court of law and a court of public opinion, I have also had to simultaneously defend myself against a one-sided effort by my bishop to bring about a canonical dismissal from the priesthood with no defense whatsoever offered by me. Throughout this process, my bishop has steadfastly refused to meet or even converse with my Canonical Advocate regarding the matter of preserving my rights under Church law.
Far worse, when my bishop learned that I am seeking an opportunity to bring forward a new appeal of my conviction, my bishop hired his own lawyers to conduct a secret evaluation of my trial to present in Rome and circumvent my own efforts to defend myself. He has repeatedly refused to share with me or my Canonical Advocate the findings of that secret assessment.
My bishop has acted throughout in the role of a prosecutor, but it’s even worse than that. In America, prosecutors are required to turn over to the defense the nature of charges and any evidence that supports them. When I tried to assert my rights under Church law in this matter, my bishop responded with silence and has remained silent ever since.
I believe I could safely say that every organization formed on behalf of priests to assist in protecting their rights under Canon Law would now state that no priest in even a hint of an adversarial circumstance with his bishop should ever agree to a one-on-one meeting without his Canonical Advocate present. It would not only be foolish, it could be destructive. It would be akin to a prosecutor demanding to meet privately with a defendant without his lawyer present.
As the priesthood crisis became critical in 2002, Cardinal Avery Dulles gave bishops and priests a clear reminder of their rights and obligations under Church law. His fine article, “The Rights of Accused Priests” is reprinted under “Articles” on These Stone Walls. Given these rights and obligations, I admire that Father Pavone is determined to resolve this matter in unity with his bishop. No bishop can in justice order him or any priest to set aside his rights under Church law.
Complicating my own comments on this matter is the fact that Father Frank Pavone and I have the same Canonical Advocate in the person of Father David L. Deibel, J.D., J.C.L. who has broad training and experience in both civil and Church law. He, of course, has not discussed the Father Pavone matter with me at all. He is an accomplished professional motivated by the law and an impeccable set of ethics.
But Father Deibel has come under some highly unjust fire because of his advocacy for me. Some have used this to try to impugn his reputation and undermine Father Pavone’s own canonical defense. In truth, Father David Deibel was the sole Church official to appear at my trial and sentencing over seventeen years ago. He traveled from California at his own expense to do this. At the time I was sentenced by Judge Arthur Brennan to 67 years in prison, Father David Deibel was one of only two people in that courtroom with the moral courage and personal integrity to speak the truth, despite knowing that there was a price to pay for it. Father David Deibel was one of the heroes in my case, and the extent to which this is true will very soon be placed into public view. There is a lot more to come in this regard, and it is indeed coming.
Meanwhile, the Church owes Father Frank Pavone the right of defense – and respect, support, and encouragement for his tireless voice on behalf of those who have been denied one. Click here for Father Frank Pavone updates.