Pavone was accused of ‘sexual misconduct’ before laicization

— Laicized priest Frank Pavone was accused before his laicization of sexual harassment, grooming behavior, and coercive physical contact with young women.

Frank Pavone livestreams on Twitter Dec. 17.

By The Pillar

Laicized priest Frank Pavone was accused before his laicization of sexual harassment, grooming behavior, and coercive physical contact with young women, several sources close to the allegations have told The Pillar.

The Pillar has learned that at least two reports of misconduct were sent to the Diocese of Amarillo during or before 2010, with additional complaints also likely filed, sources said. Reports involved allegedly inappropriate behavior toward interns and junior employees of Priests for Life, the non-profit organization Pavone has headed since 1993.

While some reports were also submitted to the Archdiocese of New York, sources close to the archdiocese told The Pillar they were forwarded to Amarillo, reportedly because Pavone was incardinated there at the time the reports were filed.

Asked about the allegation Jan. 24, a spokeswoman for Pavone told The Pillar that “any complaints Fr. Frank was made aware of” were “resolved satisfactorily.”

A woman who filed a report in 2009 told The Pillar that Pavone manipulated her while she worked as the priest’s assistant during a break from her college studies in the late 1990s, and for a few years after she left the position.

The woman reported to diocesan officials that while she was a college student in her early 20s, she contacted Priests for Life to ask about an assistant position that she had heard about.

The Pillar obtained a copy of a report written by a diocesan employee in 2009, which was written as a summary of the woman’s verbal complaint.

After she submitted her resume, Pavone “offer[ed] her a job on the spot,” according to the diocesan report.

To her surprise, the priest did not interview her before she was offered the job, except to ask her “if I liked roller coasters, and if I ate seafood,” she recalled — two things she later learned were favorites of the priest.

“That was it,” she told The Pillar.

She was also surprised to learn that the job would cover her travel, housing, and telephone bills, if she would relocate to work at Priests for Life’s New York office.

The woman said that with hindsight, the hiring process was a red flag.

“I don’t want to put malice in someone’s heart, but when I look at this today, it looks to me like he totally planned this from the very beginning. He had no interest in my credentials. He just called me, offered me a job and said he was bringing me to New York, and I was getting an apartment, a cell phone, moving expenses…”

“He was asking me about those things – roller coasters and seafood – because he was looking for someone who was compatible with what he liked to do,” she told The Pillar. “He was not concerned with whether I actually had the qualifications to do the job.”

The woman alleged to The Pillar that Pavone began “grooming” her soon after she arrived at Priests for Life, when she was 20 years old. The priest arranged her work schedule so that she worked late hours, usually until 9 or 10 pm, when only he and she would be in the office.

He pressed against her at her desk, she alleged, and put his arms around her, under the guise of typing things on her computer. He told her how much he liked her hair, she said, and urged her to wear it down at the office.

And soon after she started the job, the woman alleges that Pavone began to call her a “spiritual daughter,” and urged her to call him “Dad.”

“There would be this kind of inside secret between us, or an inside joke, I guess. I hesitate to call it affection, but he told me that he wanted me to call him ‘Dad,’ kind of joking at first, and he would encourage me, if I sent him notes or memos with paperwork, to address them to him as ‘Dad.’”

“And I would put them in his little inbox across the office, and he sort of seemed to think it was funny. And I remember him kind of walking into my cubicle and using this very theatrical, high-pitched voice and call me ‘Daughter!’, and doing this overly dramatic show of wrapping his arm around me,” she claimed.

“There was a lot of weird stuff like that early on that was blurring all the lines,” the woman said. “Looking back now, it seems to be part of a whole grooming process, of trying to get me more familiar with him.”

“I look back on it now, as an adult, and I see that. But mentally I wasn’t an adult then — and I was very trusting, and very innocent, and just didn’t understand some of what was happening in this situation.”

“As a mature woman now, I feel like the guy took a kid out of the country so that she would be totally starstruck. Because he was this pro-life superstar. He was this celebrity, this amazing figure who wanted to give me all these opportunities… and I look back on it now, and it was all manipulation. It was creating a little paramour,” she alleged. “I think that he planned to have his way with me.”

The woman said that as she worked at Priests for Life, lines continued to blur. When they were alone in the office, “he would stroke my hair while I sat at my desk. He would just come up behind me and put his arms around me, and read what I was writing, or say he wanted to fix what I was working on, and just kind of pick up my hair and drop it down, or touch my back … and I would instantly go into freeze, as soon as I felt trapped in my cubicle, because I already had trauma in my background.”

The woman alleged that on “three to five occasions,” she found after Pavone had been rubbing her back, her bra was unhooked.

“I don’t clearly remember him [undoing it]…So could it have been a faulty clasp? Maybe. It could be. But I can say that it happened more that summer than it’s ever happened in the rest of my life.”

As things got strange in the office, the woman said, Pavone invited her out to dinner, and lingered uncomfortably when he came to bless her apartment, she said.

But things got especially troubling during a trip Priests for Life employees took with a film crew from a television network.

The woman’s report alleged that at a convention in Washington, DC, where employees were assigned to share hotel rooms, she was given her own room, on the same floor where Pavone was staying in a suite.

“Father Frank had been ‘touchy-feely’ and playful during the convention,” the report alleged.

The woman told The Pillar that after a late dinner one night after a long day of work at the convention, she got into an elevator at around 2 a.m, and Pavone “happened to get into the same elevator that I did. We got to our floor and I got off the elevator and went to my room.”

According to the diocesan report, after 20 minutes or so, “there was a knock at her door. She went to the door and opened it slightly; it was Father Frank.”

The priest stood for a minute, and then asked if she was going to invite him in, the report alleged.

The report recorded that the woman “thought it was strange but invited him in. He walked into her room and sat on one of the beds. She tried to leave the door open but was unable to do so. She let go of the door and sat rigidly on the end of the bed. She then remembered she had a box of material and got up to open the door; the box was not heavy enough to hold the door open but she wedged the box in the door so it was partially open. She remembered thinking that it would look bad if someone saw him enter her room so late at night and that a pro-abortion protester could be anywhere in the hotel or nearby,” the report said.

The woman recounted to The Pillar that after Pavone sat for a few minutes on one of the room’s beds, she asked the priest why he was there.

At first he asked her how her day was, she said. But after she talked for a few minutes, according to the woman, “he asked me if I wanted to ‘slip into something more comfortable.’”

After that, the 2009 report explained: “She does not recall much of what happened next or how he eventually left her room. She kept repeating that she was very tired and wanted to go to bed. Eventually he left, and she dismissed it that Father was kind of weird.”

The woman told The Pillar that soon after it happened, she told Fr. Peter West, then Priests for Life’s associate director, that Pavone had come into her room in the middle of the night. She said the priest told her, “I wish he wouldn’t do things like that. He’s going to get us in trouble one of these days.”

There seemed to be no follow-up action, she said.

West did not respond to questions before the initial publication of this report. But after it was published, West contacted The Pillar, and said he did not remember that conversation. The priest added that if he had heard an allegation of misconduct, he believes he would have urged the woman to contact Pavone’s diocese.

But the woman alleged that as the conference was ending, and she was talking with other Priests for Life employees, Pavone walked up to her, wrapped his arms around her from behind, and said affectionately, “I am not going to let you go.”

Others watched, she alleges, but no one intervened. She remembered, she said, that her arms felt pinned down, and that she felt trapped.

The woman eventually returned to college, but continued doing work periodically for Priests for Life, and was occasionally in touch with Pavone, she claimed.

And after the organization moved into a new Staten Island headquarters, she agreed to visit it — shortly before she planned to enter religious life.

She visited New York in August 2001 for a religious profession, and Pavone invited her to stay in the apartment she’d previously lived in, maintained by Priests for Life for interns and junior employees.

She claims he took her to dinner at a restaurant near the ocean. Before they left, Pavone urged a walk along the shoreline, she alleged, during which the priest allegedly attempted to put his arm around her.

Then he took her to the office for a tour. But the woman alleged in her report that Pavone also had a strange request that evening.

“All during that dinner, he had been pressuring her to let him comb her hair before she cut it off to join the convent. She eventually said it was ok. They went back to the office, and when they went inside it was completely deserted. She asked him where everyone was, and he said they’d gone home. He walked through the offices to his private quarters, which were through his office. She stopped in his office and would not go in. He asked what the matter was, and she said she expected there to be people. He tried to convince her she would be more comfortable in his quarters than in the office,” the report recounted.

“From the door she could see his bed. It was a sparsely decorated living quarters. There was a kitchenette area to one side with a sink and a stove and a refrigerator. The main area was partitioned with dividers. There were shelves along one wall that contained pro- life videos. There was a table with 4 chairs, and there was the bed. She entered the quarters and started to walk towards the table. He told her she would be more comfortable ‘over here,’ on the bed,” according to the report.

The woman “said there was nowhere to sit there and she was going to sit at the table. She sat with her back towards him. He came over and began to stroke her hair. She leaned into her purse and got her comb; he began to comb her hair. She said it was very painful, and he said he had never had a sister. [The woman] took out a brush to make it less painful. He then played with her hair some more. She cannot remember what happened after that. She does remember that Father was angry, short, distant, and temperamental when he dropped her off at the flat,” the report said.

The woman recalled other experiences, including being invited to attend a county fair with Pavone, his parents and some employees close to Pavone. She recalls that she was pressured, both by the priest and other employees, to ride the log flume with Pavone — “I had to sit between his legs, as this log flume bumped up and down, and it was not appropriate.”

The woman said she has experienced lasting effects of Pavone’s conduct.

“My relationship with God, that one’s still hard. It was dramatically affected, and has not recovered, and my relationship with the Church was profoundly affected. My relationship with the pro-life movement was completely gutted. I spent time in religious life, but I struggled with all of this, and there were times in my life where I felt like my vocation was kind of ripped away from me because of what was done to me. I had believed I was called to religious life since I was 13 years old, and if that’s really what you were called to do and you literally cannot do it now — then where does that leave you?”

“My employment prospects … for a while, I couldn’t hold down work because I couldn’t relate to bosses — if I got corrected about something or ended up in an uncomfortable situation, I would cry or hyperventilate, I’d go into a fight-or-flight. My relationships were and are still deeply affected.”

Most difficult, she said, has been the effect on her spiritual life.

She said she continues to attend Mass, but it has not been easy.

“I don’t miss Mass, but I spent years holding onto to the edge of the pew, with my fingernails digging into the seat so I wouldn’t run away screaming. And I would sit there holding on through Mass. It was just too much. And 25 years later, I still don’t frequent confession very often; I used to go weekly, and that was best for my spiritual life, but the difficulty is finding a priest that I can trust, and a situation that makes me feel comfortable.”

“This really rocked and rocks my world.”

The woman said that the diocese where she lived has provided pastoral care for her, paid for her therapy, and aimed to build a healing relationship with her. She said she hopes other dioceses will aid victims of clerical sexual misconduct whenever possible, regardless of where the abuse took place.

“The survivor will live with this for the rest of their lives…the Church needs to not walk away after the reporting is over,” she said.

“The Church should continue to provide opportunities for pastoral support for as long as, and whenever, the survivor finds it helpful – grief and trauma are not always linear. The Church has a responsibility to help connect survivors with spiritual and psychological resources, if the survivor would like them, both because the Church’s ‘child’ is hurt and she should care for her own, and additionally, and especially so, if the wounding has occurred at the hands of her appointed workers, religious, or clergy.”

The woman is not the only one to allege personal misconduct perpetrated by Pavone. At least two reports were submitted to Church officials, The Pillar confirmed, with some sources alleging that additional women filed complaints with the Amarillo diocese.

Sources say the reports describe Pavone making unwanted advances and acting inappropriately toward young women who idealized the priest because of his self-proclaimed importance to the pro-life movement — and who allegedly used his status as both a priest and the director of Priests for Life to gain isolated access to women in their homes or during trips for the organization.

Sources close to Priests for Life alleged to The Pillar that Pavone had, for years, taken marked interest in the recruitment and hiring of junior employees, and confirmed that Priests for Life maintained an apartment to be used by interns and junior employees.

Leslie Palma, Priests for Life director of communications, told The Pillar Tuesday that:

“Any complaints Fr. Frank was made aware of were handled with respect for all involved and under the supervision of the bishop of Amarillo, and were resolved satisfactorily. The bishop expressed confidence in Fr. Frank’s good character and suitability for ministry, as these letters of good standing indicate.”

Palma asked The Pillar to cite 2010 and 2014 letters of good standing issued by the Amarillo diocese, which said that Pavone had “never been involved in an incident which called into question his fitness or suitability to fulfill the responsibilities and duties of his priestly ministry due to alcohol, substance abuse, violation of celibacy, physical abuse, or other causes.”

The letters added that Pavone had “not manifested behavioral problems in the past that would indicate he might deal with minors in an inappropriate manner.”

The 2014 letter explained that Zurek would permit Pavone to temporarily exercise ministry in the Archdiocese of New York. And on the same date that letter was issued, Zurek issued another directive which prohibited Pavone from “any form of broadcast” in media or social media.

The woman told The Pillar that her allegation was not, from her perspective, resolved satisfactorily.

“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.”

“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.”

“I don’t want to throw Bishop Zurek under the bus. I am grateful for his phone call and our conversation, which, unfortunately, was more than most bishops would have done at the time for an adult survivor. But, as seems to be true of many adult cases, my case was not handled with the full support and respect that a survivor truly deserves, and it was not resolved, period. Let alone to my satisfaction.”

“I love the Church, and I want to die her good daughter, but as members of the Church, we have a lot of work to do.”

It is not clear how the Diocese of Amarillo, where Pavone was incardinated from 2005 until his 2022 laicization, handled the allegations against the priest.

In the years before Pope Francis promulgated Vos estis lux mundi in response to the Theodore McCarrick scandal, clerical sexual misconduct involving adults was usually treated in the Church as a moral failing, but not a canonical crime — even if the cleric had a relationship of supervisory or spiritual authority over the other involved party.

The Vatican has in recent years revised canon law to broaden prohibitions on clerical sexual misconduct against adults, but experts have said the Church continues to insufficiently address the charge of sexual coercion, manipulation and harassment of adults.

The Amarillo diocese has not responded to phone calls and messages from The Pillar. The woman who spoke with The Pillar said she spoke once by telephone with a diocesan employee, and once with Bishop Patrick Zurek, but did not believe the diocese undertook a rigorous investigation into her claims.

The bishop “clearly didn’t trust [Pavone] as far as he could throw him, that was the impression I got. And he wanted as much knowledge about what had happened as I could muster, and he said if anything else came back to me, I should call him, and he gave me his cell phone number.”

“He said I should call him if I remembered anything more, so that he could do more with it — that was at least my impression of our conversation.”

In September 2011 Pavone was 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 did not mention allegations of personal misconduct, though he did lament Pavone’s “inflated” ego, and the priest’s apparent “sense of self-importance and self-determination.”

The bishop said he restricted Pavone’s activity because of “the dire need to safeguard his priestly ministry to which I am obligated as his father and to help the Church avoid any scandal due to the national scope of the PFL’s work.”

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.

The Pillar has not been able to confirm whether reports of Pavone’s alleged misconduct were received by Vatican officials.

Pavone’s laicization became public last month, after a letter from Archbishop Pierre to U.S. bishops was published online Dec. 17.

In a 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.”

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.

“Frank, you are incorrigible,” Zurek wrote.

“You have no respect for me, my office, my authority, my oversight. …I have been dealing with your disobedience and scandalous behavior for years. There is nothing more I can do with you.”

After his laicization, 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, when he became the director of Priests for Life.

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.

During his priesthood, Pavone frequently argued that he had a vocation-within-a-vocation, a discerned divine calling to dedicate his priesthood to abortion-specific ministry. Pavone has argued since his laicization that his particular vocation to pro-life work is what justified his reluctance to accept other assignments, and claimed that his issues in the Church have stemmed from unsupportive bishops, especially Zurek.

In recent weeks, Pavone has said frequently he can be eventually reinstated as a cleric by a future pope.

In the weeks since Pavone’s laicization, the priest has become a flashpoint of controversy for many Catholics, with some pro-lifers arguing that Pavone was laicized because of his work against abortion — an argument the priest himself has frequently made in social media videos and interviews.

For her part, the woman who reported Pavone’s alleged misconduct said the Church should address the allegations against him.

“To a lot of lay people, it’s like, ‘But he was the only one actually speaking the truth.’… And it becomes very cult-like where people are giving money to this figurehead because they don’t trust the Church with it, because of the other problems in the Church. The pro-life movement, and people in the Church, have been groomed by him for all these years to think he’s the only pro-life voice and is the only priest who really speaks out about this.”

“At some level, the Church has done what it can to ‘handle him.’ But I just see him continuing to do what he’s always done. It doesn’t matter if he’s been laicized. His priesthood had opened a lot of doors for him early on, but I think now he’s going to keep doing what he is doing, which is to divide good people from the truth, and from each other — to divide parts of the Church and parts of the pro-life movement,” she said.

“You know, if he had submitted in obedience each time he was asked to do things, the value of that sacrifice, for the unborn and for the Church, in union with Christ, would have been so powerful.”

“Really, I just hope that he changes someday. But the abuse of power and manipulations, and seeking out the vulnerable to exploit them, tends to be a pattern when people do it. It’s not a one-off thing, usually…and so there may be women who read this, and suddenly have it all click for them. Whether it’s about him or someone else, they’re not alone, and they’re not responsible for it, and they don’t have to be controlled by it.”

She also spoke to the need for the Church to better engage with victims of clerical sexual abuse or misconduct.

“The Church is both a beautiful and a horrifically wounded spouse of Christ, and she will not be healed without all of us. Christ’s body is not complete without all of us whom he came to redeem – everyone who is willing to be redeemed. And I’m convinced that if we really want to work through the damage from the sex abuse scandals, and other breaches of trust in the Church, that it’s going to take grafting everybody back onto the vine,” she said.

“And for a long time, there was tremendous distrust for victims, and we need instead to see them as people, and victims to see bishops as people, and to see together that we’re all the ‘walking wounded,’ and we all need redemption.”

“I’m not saying you should believe without verification everything anybody says, but I would propose that if we leave victims out of the discussion about how the Church can heal, we won’t get very far. We’re going to have to work together, to find healing in relationships, and to bring about healing for the Church, which only comes through the Crucified one.”

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