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the Body Politic
Vol. 09, No. 05 - Nov/Dec 1999, Page 03
Copyright © 1999 by the Body Politic Inc.

Priests For Life: The Vatican's Pets

By Frederick Clarkson

This briefing paper was prepared by the Institute for Democracy Studies in New York in anticipation of the historic hemispheric antiabortion conference outside Mexico City in October 1999. Called the "The Guadalupan Appeal," the New York-based Priests for Life announced that it was to cosponsor the four day event in conjunction with the Pontifical Council for the Family, and nine other international Catholic antiabortion organizations.

The Institute for Democracy Studies seeks to inform democratic movements and institutions with timely research on opposing organizations and trends in the areas of reproductive rights, religion, and law. (See interview with Fred Clarkson on pg. 18).

...the organization's unique role of activating and mobilizing priests suggests a decisive move on the part of the church to become the leading force in antiabortion activism.

Priests for Life: A New Era of Antiabortion Activism

Fr. Frank Pavone and Priests for Life, the New York-based organization he leads, embody an important new dimension of the American and international antiabortion movement. In recent years, Priests for Life has emerged as one of the leading organizations in the Catholic Church's antiabortion efforts in the U.S. and internationally. Fr. Pavone's rapid ascension is so remarkable that he has been referred to as the Pope's "Vicar for Life."

Additionally, the organization's unique role of activating and mobilizing priests suggests a decisive move on the part of the church to become the leading force in antiabortion activism. Part of the significance of this wide ranging renewal of priestly political activism is Priests for Life's ongoing relationship with militant and extreme elements of the antiabortion movement in the U.S.

Headquartered in Staten Island, New York, Priests for Life is staffed by five full-time priests and a lay staff of 23, has chapters throughout the United States and Canada, claims 5,000 "formal members and an international network of some 40,000 active priests and deacons." The organization also maintains offices in Port Chester, New York; Chicago, Illinois; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Dallas, Texas.

Vatican flag overshadows America Priests for Life was formed in 1991 by Fr. Lee Kaylor, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, with the approval of Archbishop John Quinn. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and tax-exempt organization under Internal Revenue Code of the United States, and is recognized as a private association of the faithful" under the Canon Law of the Catholic Church." Fr. Frank Pavone succeeded Kaylor in September 1993 with permission from Cardinal John O'Connor of New York. PFL has also enjoyed the support of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles, California.

The emergence of Priests for Life in the United States comes in the context of the tightening of Vatican control over the 108 bishops conferences around the world, and the growing political asser-tiveness of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to abortion and electoral politics. The bishops not only called for Catholics to vote for antiabortion politicians but that priests should speak to their parishes about candidates views on abortion, and abortion should be the main criterion when voting.

Pavone's teachings on the political and public policy role of the church goes further, and raises the specter of a church-directed voting bloc that could extend beyond abortion to a broader, theocratic agenda.

"It is not just the church that must obey God. So does the state. So does the government. Separation of church and state does not mean separation of God and state...God and his law are the very foundation...of the state."

Fr. Frank Pavone

Nonpartisan political participation is an "obligation," he explains, not an "option." Thus he explains that "the church teaches" that when one enters the voting booth, "you do not cease being a member of the church." "God destroys the evil," Pavone declares, but to do this, he says, God "puts us in the midst of those evils, and then he puts the conviction in our mind and in our heart and the words on our lips, and he opens the door for us to do something." Pavone believes that there are "structures of sin" which are "institutionalized, [and] reinforced by laws and policies of governments." "Everything we do," he continues, "is meant to be...in accordance with the laws of the Lord." Consequently, Pavone asserts that it is not only those who go to church who must obey God, but those who don't. He continues, "It is not just the church that must obey God. So does the state. So does the government. Separation of church and state does not mean separation of God and state...God and his law are the very foundation...of the state."

The role of PFL is consistent with the wider trend in the church to reassert the authority of the church hierarchy and of the priesthood. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the papacy of John Paul II has been to discipline the American church into conformity with papal directives and control. The reassertion of an authoritarian style in the church, coupled with a movement towards political engagement in the U.S., adds a powerful new dimension to the struggle both for and against reproductive rights in the U.S. and internationally. Pavone sees PFL playing a pivotal role as "the association within the Church which has both the charisma and the experience to be the seedbed for such a new initiative." PFL executive director Anthony DeStefano adds, "If we can build up an army of priests to lead the fight against abortion, we will win."

While PFL is focused on the mobilization of priests for increased antiabortion activism, this effort ultimately involves the full range of conservative Catholic positions on such related matters as reproductive rights, homosexuality, euthanasia, stem cell research, and sexuality education. Pavone explains that "abortion is the intersection of many issues and many dimensions of personal and societal life." DeStefano adds that "Priests for Life is part of the Church. We may be smaller than some other organizations...but we are really much larger in terms of our mission and our scope."

Priests for Life in Every Country?

By all appearances, Priests for Life is a major action arm of the Vatican-based Pontifical Council for the Family. The Council and PFL have had a close relationship since its founding in 1991. Pope John Paul II created the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1981, among other reasons, to defend and advance the anti-contraception and anti-abortion teachings of the 1968 Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

The president of the council, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, heads the PFL advisory board. Fr. Pavone himself worked in Rome as a member of Pontifical Council for the Family from 1997 to early 1999 while maintaining his role as head of Priests for Life in New York. In this capacity, he helped coordinate the Vatican's pro-life activities throughout the world. In 1996, prior to this appointment, Pavone stated: "The Pontifical Council for the Family, which directs policy on the life issues for the entire Roman Catholic Church, wishes to see Priests for Life expanded to every country in the world."

In January 1999, Pavone returned to the United States, where he continues to work closely with the Council on the Family. In March 1999, the two organizations held a key strategy conference in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Pro-Life Committee. Among the participants were Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and John O'Connor of New York.

Pavone also reports that "spurred on by the Pontifical Council for the Family," PFL will be active in lobbying at United Nations meetings as an official non-governmental organization.

Discipline and Activism

Priests for Life suggests to both parishioners and priests that they monitor each other to ensure that the pro-life cause is upheld. Priests are encouraged to make the antiabortion issue a priority in their parishes and sermons, and parishioners are encouraged to motivate and pressure their religious leaders if they perceive inadequate commitment to the movement.

The activities of one priest suggest what they have in mind. In January 1998, Fr. Peter West, an associate pastor at a church in Bloomfield, New Jersey, publicly challenged his archbishop, Theodore McCarrick's decision to allow the governor of New Jersey, Christine Whitman, to use the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark for her inauguration day service. West's objection was based on Whitman's veto of a state legislative ban on so-called "partial birth abortions," one form of late-term abortion. West said that McCarrick's decision "sends the wrong message to people that this issue is not as important as we say it is." Paradoxically, West's public opposition to his archbishop suggests insubordination rather than conformity and obedience to higher authority. Three months later, West joined the staff of Priests for Life.

In addition to organizing priests who are currently, and vocally, anti-choice, PFL seeks to broaden and deepen the commitment and activism of priests who have been less involved. "[T]he abortion movement will...not get away with what it is doing if the clergy become more united, purposeful and strong," Pavone asserts. "That is what Priests for Life is designed to do." Although it is strictly a Catholic organization, Pavone states that the organization "is for more than just priests. It serves the entire pro-life movement, clergy and laity, across denominational lines."

Pavone further explains that "one of the missions of the Priests for Life Association is to help build bridges between priests and people who are particularly active in the movement to end abortion."

Networking the Priesthood

PFL's main focus is to "link up priests across the country who are actively involved in the pro-life movement, and help them work effectively in union with their local bishop and diocesan programs." To this end the organization hosts training seminars, publishes a newsletter, produces video and audio tapes, and networks clergy and laity. PFL also evaluates the efficacy of existing campaign materials and activities. Pavone reports that PFL "constantly gathers information and evaluates, through the personal participation of our staff, the many training programs available in things like pro-life speaking, legislative activity, counseling, post-abortion assistance, and much more."

PFL's seminars are aimed at both the clergy and the laity. Seminars for the clergy are open to both Catholics and Protestants who are taught how to deal with the issue of abortion in their parish activities, preaching, and counseling. "[S]ome of the best pro-life training programs that ever existed are available right now," Pavone declares, "to individuals and communities who decide they are serious about ending abortion. Some of these are run by Priests for Life while others are conducted by other organizations. We want to tell you what is available and let you evaluate what will best meet your needs."

One of the programs Pavone recommends is called the Pro-Life Activist's Encyclopedia by Brian Clowes -- an ex-Green Beret and current opposition research specialist for Human Life International. Pavone says that the "program gives pro-life activists in one month the training they would otherwise obtain after three years."

One special focus is schools and universities. A typical school presentation includes films that graphically depict the fetus as a living child by using embryoscopy, the latest video technology. Following the film, PFL associate national director Fr. Richard Hogan leads a discussion equating the campaign to make abortion illegal to the experience of the abolitionist movement as it struggled against slavery in the U.S. He claims that supporters of abortion and slavery use the same language to deny constitutional rights to human beings. To personalize the issue, Hogan encourages the audience to believe that they too, at conception, were outside the realm of constitutional protection, thanks to Roe v. Wade.

PFL specializes in producing authoritative resources for distribution within the church and the antiabortion movement generally. PFL further seeks to inform and mobilize their constituency by appearing on, and even producing, their own broadcast programming. PFL materials are becoming standard resources used by other organizations in the antiabortion movement. For example, the American Life League distributes PFL's leaflet How to Encourage Your Priest to be Actively Pro-Life, which lists seven ways to involve a priest deemed insufficiently vocal about the issue.

PFL's bimonthly newsletter claims 20,000 subscribers and distribution to the "respect life offices of over 130 of the approximately 180 Catholic dioceses in the United States. The newsletter, which Pavone describes as a "resource bulletin," typically includes discussions of pro-life political strategies, suggestions for how priests may address abortion-related topics in their homilies, and updates on activities of pro-life priests.

Pavone has produced many radio and television programs on abortion, notably a 13 part TV series called Defending Life, which was originally taped for Mother Angelica's call-in TV-talk show for EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) on the Global Catholic Network. Since May 1995 this series has aired on EWTN four times a week and is frequently updated. The program was expanded for WEWN, the worldwide Catholic short-wave radio network, on which it airs several times a week. Priests for Life also hosts an hour-long program called Life and Choice, which is broadcast on Catholic Family Radio on Sunday mornings.

Leading the Way, Following in the Footsteps

Priests for Life is a unique organization, building on decades of antiabortion activism, even as it seeks to lead the movement in new directions. It differs from such groups as the National Right to Life Committee that have focused on legal and legislative efforts to abolish abortion. It also differs from the radical street activism of such groups as the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, headed by Joseph Scheidler. However, PFL also actively embraces a wide range of the antiabortion movement, with its many expressions and tactical emphases. At the same time, PFL interfaces some of the most extreme elements of the antiabortion movement, as well as perceived moderate, public policy oriented groups.

Fr. Pavone has been a featured speaker at events sponsored by National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), the largest antiabortion organization in the United States. Pavone was a featured speaker at the NRLC annual conference in June 1999, at which he participated in a panel discussion entitled, "We are the Sheep...Where are the Shepherds?", and delivered an important address at a plenary prayer breakfast. PFL promotes NRLC through its newsletter and relies on the NRLC for legislative updates.

PFL is playing a pivotal role in helping to revitalize the militant, Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) following a major legal setback in that group's thirteen-year legal struggle with the National Organization for Women (NOW). In 1998, a federal jury unanimously found that Joseph Scheidler (who is generally recognized as having "founded the militant wing of the antiabortion movement.") and the organization he led, the Pro-Life Action League (along with Operation Rescue and other individuals) had conspired to close clinics using such illegal means as "threats," "force," "violence," and "extortion." In 1999 Pavone loaned one of his senior staff, Jerry Horn, to work part time at the Chicago offices of PLAL, where he serves as assistant director for community affairs. Fr. Pavone explained the deployment of Horn to PLAL by stating that Priests for Life is "deeply committed to the unity of the pro-life movement... the benefit of another pro-life group is our benefit, not our loss."

In April 1998, Pavone issued a press release on behalf of Priests for Life and the Pontifical Council for the Family in which he declared that "the verdict in the NOW vs. Scheidler case is so unjust that I consider it my duty to call for a sustained, public resistance to this decision." Scheidler and his co-defendants are appealing the verdict to a higher court.

Pavone has a public record of erring on the side of militancy, even against the public positions of pro-life church leaders. Following the 1995 murder of two receptionists at abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, Cardinal Bernard Law called for a moratorium on sidewalk demonstrations and protests at abortion clinics. Law was attempting to defuse the violent climate that had been created as a result of the killings. Pavone joined forces with militant activists Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham of Operation Rescue and Rev. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition in denouncing the Cardinal's moratorium. Pavone publicly declared that "[w]e need to continue being on the streets. To retreat… would be a mistake. Lives would be lost… it would deprive people of education on the issue."

PLAL is not the only extreme group promoted by Priests for Life. For example, PFL promotes seminars offered by the Denton, Texas-based Life Dynamics Incorporated (LDI), which is headed by Mark Crutcher. On its website, PFL explains that LDI can show "pro-lifers that there is much they can do at a local level to drive abortion out of their community by focusing on the weak spots of the abortion industry." The weak spots, according to Crutcher and LDI, are abortion-providing doctors. Crutcher, in his 1992 book, Firestorm: A Guerilla Strategy for a Pro-Life America, explains that by targeting doctors, "[t]oday, we have opportunities before us, which properly exploited, could result in an America where abortion may indeed be perfectly legal, but no one can get one." LDI's tactic to accomplish this goal is training and encouraging people to sue doctors for such claims as malpractice.

PFL lists as "must reading" Crutcher's most recent book, titled Lime 5, that purports to expose the supposed dangers of "the abortion industry." Pavone not only recommends Lime 5; he helped gather data for it. LDI, in turn, maintains a "Spies for Life" program, which seeks to infiltrate abortion clinics.

PFL also displays on their website a series of sample letters to the editor, written by Mark Crutcher. One of these letters criticizes people who support abortion to save the life of the mother as "a bunch of abortion advocates behaving as vultures hovering over the bodies of the few women who die in childbirth. For them, maternal mortality is a bonanza -- each childbirth death can be used to sell abortions. It's disgusting that these people get rich off the deaths of women."

Priests for Life also epitomizes the growing assertiveness of the Catholic Church in the political life of the United States. These trends are indicators of important new directions and dimensions in the struggle for and against reproductive rights everywhere in the world.

Priests for Life recommends other militant groups as resource organizations, notably the American Rights Coalition, and the Pensacola, Florida-based Legal Action for Women. The latter group, formerly affiliated with the American Life League, is run by longtime activists Mike and Vicky Conroy. The organization says its purpose is to help women sue if they are injured from an abortion. Vicky Conroy also believes that "America has a sin problem."

In 1995, the couple filed a lawsuit claiming that a local ordinance that establishes eight-foot "buffer zones" to protect patients and staff coming and going from two local clinics violated their right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution. A federal court later dismissed the suit. These clinics were the sites of three murders by antiabortion zealots in the preceding two years. One of the victims, Dr. John Britton, had sought to preserve his anonymity in the wake of the murder of his predecessor, Dr. David Gunn. Vicky Conroy was among the group that assisted in exposing the identity of Dr. Britton. Paul Hill, another member of this group, who had endorsed the murder of Dr. Gunn, calling it "justifiable homicide," was later convicted of the murder of Dr. Britton.

The gathering of intelligence by antiabortion activists about the identities, families and itineraries of abortion-providing physicians and clinic personnel has been very controversial. The information is sometimes used by militant activists to harass healthcare workers and their families at home, at school, and in church. Occasionally, such information has been used for purposes of murder and attempted murder.


The emergence of Priests for Life as a major antiabortion action arm of the Catholic Church underscores the increasingly international character of the antiabortion movement. While Priests for Life's headquarters and main constituency base is in North America, it plays an increasingly important international role, as is indicated by its participation in the "Guadalupan Appeal" in Mexico and its emergence as a nongovernmental organization in the United Nations system. Priests for Life also epitomizes the growing assertiveness of the Catholic Church in the political life of the United States. These trends are indicators of important new directions and dimensions in the struggle for and against reproductive rights everywhere in the world.

Who's Who in Priests For Life?

Fr. Frank Pavone ordained in 1988 by Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, has long been an associate of the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement. Pavone, who used to condemn the murder of clinic personnel and violence in general may have become more equivocal in his view of violence against doctors who perform abortions. He recently compared the legal abortion of a fetus in the U.S. with shooting a doctor. "When someone kills an abortion provider," he wrote, "he/she is practicing what pro-choicers have preached for decades: that sometimes it is OK to choose to end a life to solve a problem."

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, a key figure in the Latin American Catholic hierarchy, was one of the leading Vatican supporters of Augusto Pinochet and a well known supporter of the secretive rightist Catholic lay organization, Opus Dei. He is reportedly one of the prime candidates to succeed the current pope.

Jerry Horn, Senior Vice-President for Media and Public Relations, has an anti-abortion resume that dates back to at least 1983. In November of that year, Horn and Norman Stone, both leaders of the Appleton, Wisconsin-based Valley Christian Center, launched a year-long protest against the Fox Valley Reproductive Center. The pair were arrested on several occasions throughout that year for trespassing and disorderly conduct and both were eventually convicted of trespassing. They claimed to have received their "marching orders from God."

In 1985, Horn and Stone hosted the annual conference of the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), a national coalition of militant activists, also headed by Scheidler. PLAN activities were the subject of the NOW v. Scheidler case. The PLAN conference was held at the motel that served as their headquarters in Appleton. Horn posted on the motel marquee "Welcome Pro-lifers -- Have a Blast!" This conference -- at which some conference participants wore firecrackers on their nametags -- followed a two-year wave of clinic bombings and arsons. At this event, it was announced that 1986 would be designated the "Year of Fear and Pain."

Fr. Richard Hogan, Associate National Director joined Priests for Life as a full-time member in July 1995. His main role is to travel around the United States training and exhorting priests to pro-life activism. In this capacity, he lectures to anti-abortion groups and assists in the overall growth and development of anti-abortion projects. Like Pavon, Hogan is highly regarded by the Vatican.

Fr. Peter West, Priest Associate, joined Priests for Life staff in 1998. At the end of October this year, West will represent PFL at the four-day anti-abortion conference, the "Guadalupan Appeal," being held in Mexico City.

Anthony DeStefano, Executive Director and Chief of Staff, joined PFL at the end of 1996. In 1994 he served as the spokesperson for the Republican candidate for state comptroller of New York State, Herbert London. During that campaign, London promised to fight what he called "the last bastion of socialism," the state of New York. London also pledged to make large cuts in Medicaid and welfare payments, support the death penalty, and work to contain the "homosexual agenda."

A. Scott Hults, media consultant, brings almost 30 years of broadcast advertising experience to the media outreach effort of PFL. He currently also works for EQTN Global Catholic Radio, the station that broadcasts Pavone's weekly anti-abortion series, Defending Life, and is the media advisor for the right wing monthly magazine, Crisis.

Anthony Levatino, medical consultant, is an OB/Gyn who used to perform abortions as part of his practice until 1984. He remains active in the medical field and served as director of the OB/GYN program at Albany Medical College as late as 1997. He and his wife operate a pro-life educational entity called Heather's Place that produces very graphic illustrations of a late-term abortion procedure. These graphic have been used in congressional speeches.

Editor's Note: For the complete text plus footnotes of this article send $5.00 to:

Institute for Democracy Studies
177 East 87th Street, Suite 501
New York, NY 10128.

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