What Should We Think About the Pavone Affair?

How should faithful Catholics respond to the Pavone Affair, and second, what should Frank Pavone himself do or not do?

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The laicization of and sexual harassment charges against Frank Pavone have deeply disturbed faithful pro-life Catholics. Online discussions include armchair analyses of what his religious superiors and the Board of Priests for Life should have done. Some people want to know why these charges are coming up at this particular time. Still others want to know why the Vatican is singling out Pavone for discipline while ignoring other problematic priests. 

Without dismissing these legitimate questions, I would like to focus on two questions. First, how should faithful Catholics respond to the Pavone Affair, and second, what should Frank Pavone himself do or not do?  

But first, let’s recap the facts known to the public as of this writing. 

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On December 17, 2022, it was reported that Pavone had been dismissed from the priesthood by the Vatican. Then The Pillar, on January 24, 2023, reported that an unnamed woman employee of Priests for Life charged that then-Fr. Pavone had continually sexually harassed her years ago. This article also claimed that additional women had filed similar complaints with the Amarillo diocese. Then, on February 8, The Pillar reported that another woman, Mary Worthington, had similar experiences with Fr. Pavone. Other outlets, including Catholic News Agency, Our Sunday Visitor, and Church Militant have also published stories. The Vatican’s December announcement removing Pavone from the clerical state did not mention sexual misconduct. 

I personally find the women’s testimonies credible. Multiple women have independently told detailed stories, which are consistent with each other. Some of them told other people about the harassment while it was going on. Pavone’s accusers aren’t seeking money or fame or any political benefit. This contrasts with Christine Blasey Ford’s vague claims against Brett Kavanaugh during the high-stakes battle over a Supreme Court seat—claims which had no corroborating witnesses. She told no one about them at the time they happened. 

Even more damaging to my eyes is the statement Pavone made in his own defense: 

Of course, I’m sure there have been times in my life where I’ve somehow missed the mark and unintentionally made someone feel uncomfortable. I’m sorry to anyone who might have ever taken offense in such moments. 

Notice that this statement does not deny he did the things of which he’s been accused. He’s sorry someone took offense. In my opinion, this is not the statement of an innocent man. 

Nor does the statement from Priests for Life to The Pillar help Pavone’s cause, in my judgment. 

Any complaints Fr. Frank was made aware of were handled with respect for all involved and under the supervision of the bishop of Amarillo and were resolved satisfactorily. The bishop expressed confidence in Fr. Frank’s good character and suitability for ministry, as these letters of good standing indicate.

This raises the question, “satisfactorily for whom?” As the woman who made the complaint told The Pillar: 

As seems to be true of many adult cases, my case was not handled with the full support and respect that a survivor truly deserves, and it was not resolved, period. Let alone to my satisfaction.

The evidence is credible enough that former employees and former board members are calling on Priests for Life to launch an independent investigation. 

Based on all this information, faithful Catholics have been torn as to what to think. I have heard numerous people comment on the sexual harassment issues, saying, in effect, “Fr. Pavone would never do a thing like that, because he has done so much to save babies.” Reflecting on this statement and the feelings behind it can teach Catholics who love our Church something of lasting value. This episode can potentially help us not only with the Pavone Affair but also with the clergy sex abuse crisis more generally. 

Let’s think about this statement, “Fr. Pavone would never do a thing like that, because he has done so much to save babies.” Perhaps you have felt this or said things like this yourself about Pavone or some other accused priest. Let’s take a step back and imagine someone making a similar statement about a priest we aren’t attached to. Maybe we don’t like the priest, or don’t agree with him on some important matters. 

We hear someone make the same opening statement, “Fr. Feelgood would never do a thing like that because…” and then they fill in the blank with something else: “He is so nice.” “He is so funny and charismatic.” The logical structure of their statement is the same as the statement another person might make: “Fr. Faithful would never do a thing like that because he says the Latin Mass.” 

What do we make of this? I think we can have some empathy for people’s instinct to protect the reputation of their favorite priest. And at the same time, we have to admit that we cannot indulge the instinct or give it any quarter. It doesn’t matter what is on the other side of the “because” clause. Whether we consider ourselves “left,” “right,” or “center,” whether we favor the Traditional Latin Mass or the Novus Ordo, we all have something in common. For our own separate reasons and about different priests, everyone who talks this way is really saying, “I want these allegations to be not true.”  

Let’s be clear. Our feelings don’t matter here. The most important thing is whether the allegations are true. Without truth, there can be no justice. False allegations are obviously unjust. Rushing to judgment of either guilt or innocence is unjust. Facing down our own discomfort, putting our own feelings aside, is the first step that you and I must take. Willfully blind laity are not helping anyone—not the victims, not the accused priest, and certainly not Holy Mother Church herself. This is the most basic lesson from the Pavone Affair.  Let’s be clear. Our feelings don’t matter here. The most important thing is whether the allegations are true. Without truth, there can be no justice. Tweet This

At the same time, justice demands that we listen to the cries of the victims. We can take the victims seriously and listen to them. At the very least, we must refrain from shaming them, even if we cannot be 100 percent sure what happened. I note in passing: the cost of mistakenly supporting the accusers is lower for Pavone than is often the case. He is not going to jail, even if the allegations meet the very high evidentiary standards of a court of law. His alleged actions were creepy but probably not criminal. And he has already lost his priesthood, for reasons unrelated to these allegations.

The Pavone Affair also reinforces something else the Church has always taught. Every sin is an offense against God and against the whole community as well as the immediate most obvious victims. Every sin wounds the entire Mystical Body of Christ. 

The allegations are hurting the people in the pro-life movement who supported him, who believed in him, who donated to him. These ripple effects illustrate why the Church is skeptical about the whole concept of “victimless crimes.” The concept surreptitiously redefines the harms of the crime in order to narrow the class of victims. “My sexual sins are my private business” is almost always untrue. Our sexual sins almost always bleed over into the entire family—and, in this case, the wider pro-life community. 

I have talked with numerous survivors of sexual misconduct. They aren’t looking for money. In fact, the attempt to pay them off offends them. The excuse-making and blame-shifting that perpetrators and their enablers so often engage in retraumatizes the survivors. The reporting on the Pavone case so far gives no reason to suppose that these women are any different in this regard. I’m not seeing a motive for them to invent these charges. 

And what about Pavone himself? How should he handle this sad situation?

I would argue that Frank Pavone can do a lot to help us move past what has happened. A humble apology, without excuses or equivocation, would remove the uncertainty. A sincere attempt to make amends to everyone he has harmed would serve both justice and mercy. 

We don’t know what happened. But Pavone does. He knows perfectly well whether he fondled someone’s legs while she was driving him to the airport. Presumably, numerous people know that his living quarters were adjacent to the Priests for Life Office. He knows he did not need to have young employees in his living quarters after hours. He surely knew he had no business stroking his employee’s hair. These women had every reason to “feel uncomfortable.” 

I am aware that some people counsel “the path of silence.” I do not agree with this. The offenses Pavone is alleged to have committed are not merely private offenses to specific individuals. He also hurt the wider community of people who trusted him, who supported him, who linked their reputations to him. These innumerable and possibly anonymous people also deserve an apology. A public offense requires a public apology. 

This scandal is not hurting abortion doctors or Planned Parenthood. He is hurting his friends and allies. His case is the occasion of dissension and division among passionate pro-life Catholics. Some are convinced he is guilty. Others are dismissing the victims or diminishing their complaints in an attempt to preserve their positive image of Frank Pavone. People are tying themselves in knots trying to make sense of the situation. Pavone could cut those knots very simply by admitting what he did.

Maybe you are not convinced by the evidence available now. Fair enough. Just the same, wouldn’t a clear statement from him mean a lot to you? If he said plainly, “I didn’t do any of these things,” we’d all be able to analyze his words and see if they rang true to us. What he has said so far falls well short of that standard, in my opinion. 

Let me be 100 percent crystal clear about what I’m looking for in an apology. It goes like this: “I was wrong. I’m sorry I hurt you. How can I make things right?” Then stop talking. “Explanations” sound too much like excuses or equivocations.  

I’m calling on Frank Pavone’s conscience. He has not spent his career preaching moral relativism or situational ethics. He has spent his career drawing bright lines between right and wrong. Think what it would mean for the Church in her hour of need if one humble priest would apologize and try to make amends. 

Frank Pavone knows the truth of what he did. He can put a stop to the speculation all by himself. He can staunch the wounds his conduct has inflicted on the pro-life movement and the Church as a whole. The sooner the better. 

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