Canon lawyer analyzes issues in Fr. Pavone case

Well-known canon lawyer Edward Peters delved into the unresolved issues on both sides of the situation involving Father Frank Pavone being called back to Amarillo, Texas by his bishop.

“Fr. Pavone has already undertaken the correct move by returning to Amarillo,” Peters told CNA on Sept. 20, adding that the diocese has also “since stated that Pavone is not under any penalty.” 

“For the both sides, these things represent a start, but only a start, toward resolving this conflict.”

Fr. Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, is appealing his suspension from active ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo to the Congregation for Clergy in Rome and is denying charges made by Bishop Patrick J. Zurek—whose jurisdiction he is under—that he had disobeyed the bishop and  failed to allow all of the Priests for Life ministries to undergo financial auditing.  

Peters, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said that although Fr. Pavone has every right to appeal his suspension, the priest's attitude of obedience towards his bishop has been “deficient.”

“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.

“The first questions regard the finances of Priests for Life and its various affiliate organizations,” he said. “Experts must assess whether there is anything amiss there. I have no sense of which way that might go.”

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But secondly, and more importantly, he added, “how does Fr. Pavone understand the relationship between his priesthood and his pro-life work?”

If Fr. Pavone was directed by his bishop to give up his leadership of Priests for Life, cease his organized pro-life activities, and to return to Amarillo for full-time assignment, “would he comply?” Peters asked. 

“The Pavone case exposes a central question not just for Pavone, but for all young Catholic men, motivated by compassion for this suffering world and considering priesthood as the way to live out their love of Christ.”

“Is priesthood a man’s vocation, a calling that has the first place in a man’s person and life, or is priesthood a sort of built-in spiritual power-pack that helps one to shoulder the stresses of doing full-time charitable work?”

Peters clarified that Fr. Pavone has the right to seek a new diocese under canon law and noted the priest's “intense desire” to work in the pro-life movement. He is wary, however, that the same situation could occur for Fr. Pavone under the jurisdiction of a new bishop.

Also, “it surfaces the same fundamental question,” he added, “what is priesthood for in the first place?”

“Catholic pro-life work is carried on by clergy and laity, many of whom are married. As important as pro-life work is, the demands of one’s vocation come first.”

Peters pointed out that it’s easier to see those demands taking their toll in the case of a priest like Fr. Pavone than it is to see them in the case of married persons.

But “bottom line, if the demands of priesthood conflict with the demands of pro-life work, a priest is bound to fulfill his clerical duties first.”