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Pro-life activists in tuxedos and gowns streamed into the Waldorf-Astoria hotel one evening late last month for the annual Proudly Pro-Life Award dinner, organized by the National Right to Life Committee. It was to be a star-studded affair, at least by pro-life standards. The honorary committee included Rush Limbaugh, Steve Forbes, Charlton Heston, and Ben Stein from Comedy Central. Seven hundred people showed up for the $500-a-plate dinner.
The National Right to Life Committee is the nation's most prominent antiabortion organization with 3000 chapters across the country. The high point of the group's annual black-tie fundraiser is its Proudly Pro-Life Award. Past honorees include Cardinal John O'Connor, Mother Teresa, President Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II. Tonight, the prize would go to a little-known priest from Staten Island named Father Frank Pavone.
The story of how Pavone, 42, became a rising star in the antiabortion movementand why he is now a favorite target of pro-choice leadersprovides a glimpse into the future of America's abortion wars. If Pavone is successful, that future will include a significant increase in pro-life advertising, more priests preaching against abortion, and more aggressive clinic protests.
Over the last 12 years, Pavone has transformed his organization, Priests for Life, from a fledgling nonprofit into a multi-million-dollar operation. Its main purpose is to urge priests to be more militant in their pro-life activism. The organization also urges voters to pick antiabortion candidates and has launched a campaign to draw women who've had abortions back into the church. Pavone, who worked in Rome for two years, has been called the pope's "vicar for life" and serves on the Pontifical Council for the Family, which coordinates the Vatican's policy on abortion issues.
For nearly a decade, Pavone has been a fixture in the Catholic media, appearing on his own cable television and radio shows. Now he is bringing his message to non-Catholics, too. Last year, Priests for Life spent $1 million on advertising to convince people to vote pro-life in the presidential election. And in late March, Pavone announced a $12 million, two-year campaign with billboards, newspaper ads, and television and radio commercials. Priests for Life billboards have recently begun appearing in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.
As Priests for Life has grown, so has criticism of its leader. Pro-choice activists accuse Pavone of being too cozy with antiabortion extremists and encouraging clinic blockades, even when such actions constitute criminal trespassing. On the night of the Waldorf-Astoria event, 250 people gathered outside to protest Pavone. The crowd included New York University students, veteran pro-choice leaders, two state legislators, and New York City comptroller Alan Hevesi.
"Pavone provides something tremendously important to the violent wing of the antichoice movementa smooth-talking, very, very articulate frontman," says State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, who helped organize the protest. "Pavone is out to unify the [antiabortion] movement and to bring together the violent factions and nonviolent factions and have them work together in a coordinated way."
Pavone denies that any of his allies are violent. But asked about the protest against him, he seems almost giddy. "It's exciting," the priest says. "I've been looking forward to it for years. What we want to do is end abortion. If we did not represent a force that could actually begin to make that happen, then there would be no reason for them to target us."
Pavone grew up in Port Chester, New York, the son of a hardware salesman. His family was not especially religious, but after Pavone traveled with classmates to Washington, D.C., for an antiabortion rally in 1976, he discovered his calling. He graduated at the top of his high school class, then joined the seminary. On his road to the priesthood, he took a brief detoura short stint working behind the information desk at the Department of Motor Vehiclesbefore being ordained at age 29.
Pavone worked at St. Charles Church on Staten Island for five years, until Cardinal John O'Connor appointed him the first full-time director of Priests for Life in 1993. Priests for Life now has 32 employees, including four full-time priests. To promote his message, Pavone travels constantlymeeting fellow clergy, speaking at conferences, picketing clinics, and strategizing with other antiabortion leaders.
When Pavone is home, he wakes around 5 a.m., snaps on his clerical collar, and heads to Priests for Life's headquarters, located in Staten Island's New Dorp section, across from Toys "R" Us. For Pavone, a typical day in the office lasts 15 hours. He updates his group's Web page, meets with priests, records a program for Vatican Radio, attends staff meetings, and plans his next trip.
This week, Pavone traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Catholic CEOs and White House officials. (He had planned to visit Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose son Paul is a priest and a member of Priests for Life, but the meeting was postponed.) Next Pavone will attend the Catholic Press Association's annual convention in Dallas. And he will end the week in Hartford, giving a retreat for priests.
The walls of the lobby at Priests for Life's headquarters are a testament to Pavone's relentless networking. There are photographs of him with Mother Teresa, Senator Henry Hyde, President George W. Bush, and Norma McCorvey ("Jane Roe" from Roev. Wade, whose conversion to Catholicism Pavone oversaw in 1998).