Father Frank's Crusade

A Staten Island Priest Leads a Costly and Well-Organized Campaign Against Abortion

A recent report by the Institute for Democracy Studies, a pro-choice think tank in Manhattan, detailed Pavone's relationships with some of the antiabortion movement's most controversial members:

  • Pavone has appeared with Operation Rescue leaders Randall Terry and Reverend Philip "Flip" Benham at various events. Several years ago, Benham and Pavone spoke at a burial service in Dallas for 900 aborted fetuses
  • Pavone invited Mark Crutcher onto his cable television show to give tips on putting abortion doctors out of business using malpractice litigation. Crutcher, who runs an antiabortion organization in Dallas, has written that his goal is "an America where abortion may be perfectly legal, but no one can get one."
  • In 1998, a jury found that Joseph Scheidler, who runs the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago, had violated federal racketeering laws by conducting a nationwide campaign of harassment and intimidation at clinics. (Scheidler is appealing.) He has been an ally of Pavone's for many years and his photo hangs in the lobby of Priests for Life's headquarters.

Pavone's explanation of his relationships with these activists seems murky. On the one hand, he insists none of his allies are violent. "If anyone ever said that shootings, bombings, arsons, or any other kinds of things we would call violence were justified, we'd come out as strongly and say we disagree with that," the priest says. However, when asked about his pro-choice critics, Pavone says, "They see in us a linkage between the extreme and mainstream. There is a truth there that they're picking up on. We have always been a networking hub. The doors are open to everyone."

What constitutes violence has long been a sticking point in the abortion debate. Unlike the National Right to Life Committee and many other pro-life groups, Pavone endorses clinic blockades—an illegal tactic that was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Operation Rescue members were handcuffing themselves to clinic doors.

From the pulpit to the streets to the media, Father Frank Pavone hawks his antiabortion message.
photo: Michael Sofronski
From the pulpit to the streets to the media, Father Frank Pavone hawks his antiabortion message.

"We're not talking about people rushing in and breaking windows and shooting guns," Pavone explains. "We're talking about a peaceful blockade of a facility where you end up being told to get out because you're trespassing. Is it morally justifiable for these people to stay there? Yes."

Such talk worries many pro-choice leaders. "I do fear he's about to take up where Operation Rescue left off, and we're going to see an increasing attack not only through the legislative and legal side, but once again through the illegal and harassing and violent side," says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.

In late march, Pavone announced a $12 million advertising campaign designed to welcome women who'd had abortions back into the church. Already, Pavone has had to revamp his plan after the nation's bishops intervened. The National Council of Catholic Bishops publicly stated that Priests for Life would be coordinating its work with post-abortion counseling services already provided by many dioceses, rather than launching a separate campaign.

"There is an existing ministry designed to reconcile women with the church," says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "So it's somewhat territorial. I think Father Pavone stepped over the line."

Over the last several weeks, the campaign's first 200 billboards have gone up on buildings around New York City, including in neighborhoods like Harlem and Midwood, Brooklyn. The posters' message is simple. "Hurting from abortion?" the billboards ask. "The doors of the church are open."

The signs seem to have several purposes: to promote the church's post-abortion services; to remind people about the shame and pain that pro-life activists claim abortions cause; and to promote Pavone himself, who peers down from the posters. Priests for Life plans to put up 5000 billboards in five cities by the year's end.

Priests for Life is preparing to run full-page newspaper ads listing the names of women who have died during abortions. The ads call for "a full-scale investigation of the abortion industry." Television commercials will air in the fall. Four ads were unveiled at the Waldorf-Astoria dinner, including one showing children talking about their aspirations. "I want to be a fireman when I grow up," says one boy. "I want to be a teacher," a girl says. The commercial could be selling soda pop or life insurance, until a female voice at the end states, "The choice to have an abortion alters the course of the future. If you're struggling with this decision, there are alternatives. The doors of the church are open."

Talking about these commercials, Anthony DeStefano, executive director of Priests for Life, can barely contain his enthusiasm. "When these commercials go on the air, not only is our side going to be energized like never before, but the pro-choice side is going to be very, very angry," he says. "I think Priests for Life is going to be a household word."

Priests for Life will spend a total of $5 million on its media campaign this year, according to DeStefano. How can the nonprofit afford such costly advertising? Pavone's organization survives on donations—mostly from people who see the priest on cable television or hear him on the radio.

Asked about Priests for Life's largest donors, DeStefano is tight-lipped, though he concedes they include Tom Monaghan, the wealthy conservative Catholic who founded Domino's Pizza. Priests for Life's contributions grew from $1.3 million in 1998 to $5.3 million in 2000, according to tax returns and financial statements provided by DeStefano. At this rate of growth, the organization expects its 2001 income to exceed $10 million.

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