Vatican Removes Anti-Abortion Activist From the Priesthood

Frank Pavone’s work has led to clashes over the years with some Catholic leaders.

Frank Pavone leads the advocacy organization Priests for Life and was once a religious adviser to former President Donald J. Trump.

By Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham

A well-known Catholic priest and incendiary leader of the anti-abortion movement was removed from the priesthood by the Vatican, according to a letter from Pope Francis’ representative to the United States that was obtained by The New York Times.

Frank Pavone, who leads the advocacy organization Priests for Life, and was once a religious adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, was dismissed from the clergy on Nov. 9 with no possibility of appeal, the letter states. The letter included a statement about the removal, called laicization, that it said was approved by the Dicastery for the Clergy, a Vatican office.

“This action was taken after Father Pavone was found guilty in canonical proceedings of blasphemous communications on social media, and of persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop,” it states.

The letter did not specify those communications or disobedience, or name the diocesan bishop. Reached by phone on Sunday morning, Mr. Pavone said that he had not been properly notified of the decision.

“I’m waiting for them to point out to me what I did wrong that merits something like this,” he said. And though the Vatican has said there was no possibility of appeal, Mr. Pavone said that ultimately he and his allies “would have to appeal to the next pope” and “to the people of God.”

The punishment of a high-profile Catholic anti-abortion activist comes at a precarious moment for the movement as it plans its future after losses in the midterm election and struggles to unify Republicans around the issue. Mr. Pavone’s anti-abortion activism was not cited in the letter as the reason for his dismissal.

The move also comes a month after the Catholic bishops of the United States said they would redouble their efforts to end abortion and elected new leaders who are expected to continue the conservative leanings of the hierarchy.

Mr. Pavone, a ubiquitous figure at anti-abortion rallies and fund-raisers, is prolific on social media. By his own account, his outspoken anti-abortion activism has won the support of some church leaders over the years but has also led to clashes with others.

He is also known in the anti-abortion movement for his relationship with Norma McCorvey, the ‘Jane Roe’ of Roe v. Wade, whose lawsuit led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision nearly 50 years ago to enshrine the right to abortion in the Constitution. Ms. McCorvey later converted to Catholicism and the anti-abortion cause, at least for a time. The court rescinded the right this summer.

Mr. Pavone was devoted to Mr. Trump and was among those who questioned the results of the 2020 election.

His dismissal was first reported by the conservative outlet Catholic News Agency on Saturday night.

On a live broadcast on social media shortly after the report, Mr. Pavone said he had received no communication from the Vatican about his removal. Wearing a leather jacket over his priest’s collar, he said he would continue his work for the anti-abortion cause.

“I’ve been persecuted in the church for decades, decades. This is nothing new for me,” he said. “They just don’t like the work I’m doing for these babies.”

He seemed to refer to a comment on Twitter from 2020 in which he referred to “supporters of this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party.”

“I used the word G-D in a response to somebody in a tweet and for that they want to throw me out of the priesthood,” he said.

The letter about his removal makes no specific reference to this incident, or to abortion beyond his affiliation.

Online, Mr. Pavone seemed to compare his removal itself to abortion.

“In every profession, including the priesthood, if you defend the #unborn, you will be treated like them!” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday night. “The only difference is that when we are ‘aborted,’ we continue to speak, loud and clear.”

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s representative to the United States, called the apostolic nuncio, addressed the letter dated Dec. 13 to bishops, alerting them of the decision from the Vatican. The New York Times obtained the letter from a person who had access to it but who was not authorized to share it.

“As you will know, Father Pavone was a very public and high profile figure associated with the Right to Life Movement in the U.S.,” Archbishop Pierre states. “His dismissal from the clerical state may, therefore, be a matter of interest among the faithful. In anticipation of that potential interest, the attached statement regarding Father Pavone is provided for your information.”

The statement said that Mr. Pavone was given “ample opportunity to defend himself” as well as “multiple opportunities to submit himself to the authority of his diocesan bishop.”

“It was determined that Father Pavone had no reasonable justification for his actions,” it says.

The statement said the future of Mr. Pavone’s role at Priests for Life would be entirely up to the group, which it described as “not a Catholic organization.”

In his broadcast, Mr. Pavone said, “You can’t cancel this message, you won’t silence this message. It’s only going to grow. We’re only going to get louder.”

During the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Pavone posted a live video on Facebook in which he put an aborted fetus on what appeared to be an altar. The Diocese of Amarillo in Texas, which oversaw him at the time, announced that it opened an investigation into Mr. Pavone as a result. The diocese did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday night.

Mr. Pavone clashed publicly with the bishop of the Diocese of Amarillo, Patrick Zurek, several times over the years. In the fall of 2020, the diocese issued a statement saying Catholics should disregard Mr. Pavone’s rhetoric about the election, including comments online about withholding the absolution of sin from Catholics who voted Democratic.

“These postings are not consistent with Catholic Church Teachings,” the diocese said in a statement at the time. “Please disregard them and pray for Father Pavone.”

In the interview on Sunday, Mr. Pavone said that he believed the removal process stemmed from the Amarillo investigation. He said that he had previously told church authorities he would not participate in the process, which he saw as “tainted.”

Following the report of his dismissal, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, defended Mr. Pavone as “the one priest devoted most over the years” to taking action and building support for the anti-abortion cause, and said that she would continue to lean on him going forward.

“He and I see it the same way: This is the very beginning of the pro-life movement, and he has only just gotten started,” she said.

Eric Scheidler, the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, which has a long relationship with Mr. Pavone, said it was “hard to see an organization called Priests for Life headed by a man who’s not recognized as a priest by any local bishop.”

Mr. Pavone’s removal could rattle his fellow activists at a sensitive time, said Mr. Scheidler, who is Catholic.

“It’s a time of real soul-searching and challenges for the pro-life movement as we try to rebuild after the backlash to the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” he said.

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