“Priests who are labeled by a bishop as 'suspended,' but who have not even been charged, let alone convicted of a canonical crime, have every right to protest vigorously such treatment and to insist that it be retracted,” he said.
But Fr. Pavone has “continually spoken of the obedience that he owes Bishop Zurek in very nuanced and highly-qualified terms,” Peters remarked.
“Whatever set this conflict off, it’s unfolding has exposed, in my opinion, a deficient attitude from Fr. Pavone in regard to the clerical obedience he owes his bishop and even in his understanding of the purpose of priesthood.”
Bishop Zurek announced in a Sept. 9 letter to his fellow bishops that he had suspended Fr. Pavone from public ministry outside the diocese, beginning Sept. 13.
The bishop cited “deep concerns regarding his stewardship of the finances of the Priests for Life (PFL) organization.” The 990 Forms submitted to the IRS from 2008, the most recent date available, show Priests for Life had income totaling $10.8 million.
Fr. Pavone said that he had been actively talking with Bishop Zurek for months about spending more time in the diocese before the bishop forbid him from ministry outside of the diocese.
In an Sept. 14 interview with CNA, he said that he arrived in Amarillo the day before, in obedience to Bishop Zurek’s order, but found that the bishop left town that day and would be out of the country for two weeks.
Fr. Pavone stated that independent audits were conducted on Priests for Life between 2005 and 2010, but that the diocese never acknowledged the receipt of those audits. He also noted that he does not receive a salary from either Priests for Life or the Diocese of Amarillo.
The priest has additionally said that if his bishop does not allow him to return to full-time pro-life work, he will consider pursuing incardination in a different diocese.
“For diocesan priests like Fr. Pavone, 'incardination' is the mechanism by which they are canonically assigned to a particular church and receive a bishop to whom they owe primary obedience,” Peters explained.
“The authority of Bishop Zurek over Fr. Pavone is based on the fact that Fr. Pavone is 'incardinated' in the Diocese of Amarillo which Zurek leads.”
Peters recalled that Fr. Pavone was originally ordained for and incardinated in the Archdiocese of New York, but later he lawfully sought excardination from New York and was incardinated in the Diocese of Amarillo.
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“Even though Pavone works almost entirely outside of the territory of Amarillo—ironically, in Staten Island, in the Archdiocese of New York—he remains a priest of Amarillo and is primarily subject to its bishop.”
Peters was critical of the diocese's initial handling of the situation, saying that under canon law, Bishop Zurek's suspension is not simply a kind of “administrative limbo” imposed on the cleric until various issues get sorted out.
“Suspension itself is a canonical penalty and supposes that a cleric has been found guilty of a canonical crime.”
Because of this, Peters believes that a diocesan statement “expressly withdrawing any language about Pavone’s ever having been suspended” should have been made. A Sept. 15 statement was issued by the diocese which said that despite the questions about finances “Father Pavone is not being charged with any malfeasance or being accused of any wrong doing with the financial matters of Priests for Life.”
“The fact is that Bishop Zurek’s statement that Fr. Pavone was suspended made Pavone look guilty of something before he had even been accused of anything,” he said.
On what will happen next, Peters qualified that his predictions “are no more reliable than anyone else’s” but said that he believes the “open questions” in this case fall into two categories.