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 movement—and why he is now a favorite target of pro-choice leaders—provides 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 movement—a 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 detour—a short stint working behind the information desk at the Department of Motor Vehicles—before 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 constantly—meeting 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 Roe v. Wade, whose conversion to Catholicism Pavone oversaw in 1998).
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’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.
“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.
When Priests for Life’s television ads do air, politicians may find it difficult to criticize them and Pavone. State Senator Schneiderman learned this lesson in the wake of his anti-Pavone protest. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights sent out a press release: “NYS Senator Schneiderman Libels Pro-Lifers.” Angry e-mails poured into the senator’s office. Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari attacked him in a local paper. And the senator began receiving menacing messages on his home telephone.
Schneiderman insists he will keep up his efforts. But, he says, “I think a lot of people are intimidated by the prospect of offending Catholic voters, and several people have told me this is a stupid thing to be involved in.”
For pro-choice leaders, Pavone is also a difficult target. His strong ties to the Vatican and his status as a priest seem to act as a sort of Teflon to protect him from charges of extremism. Pro-choice leaders only began publicly criticizing him last year. Meanwhile, Pavone has been building his network, averaging two trips a week, for seven years. Now that the nation has an antiabortion president, especially one who recently proclaimed the importance of the Catholic vote, Pavone has never been better positioned to push his agenda.