Father Pavone’s “Suspension”: Priests for Life, Part II

(Part I of this article was posted on November 21, 2012, and can be read here.)

In the first part of our discussion of the unhappy situation involving Priests for Life leader Fr. Frank Pavone and his bishop, Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas, we’ve already seen that a diocesan bishop has authority to assign the priests of his diocese to whatever ministry he feels is appropriate.  Diocesan priests, in turn, don’t have to like the work that they are assigned to do; they just need to do it.  Canon law fully accords with Catholic ecclesiology on this subject.

It’s clear, therefore, that Bishop Zurek had the legal right to reassign Fr. Pavone to ministry within the diocese of Amarillo, which in turn required him to leave his previous bishop-zurek-2assignment as head of Priests for Life.  Nevertheless, when the bishop wrote his September 9, 2011 letter to fellow bishops (already quoted in Part I), explaining his decision “to suspend Father Frank A. Pavone from public ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo,” the immediate backlash was predictable and canonically justified.  What happened?

The problem with Bishop Zurek’s letter was his use of the word “suspend.”  It appears from the diocese’s subsequent statements that the bishop intended merely to say that he was ending Father’s assignment as head of Priests for Life, and giving him a new one—but that’s definitely not what “suspend” means in canon law.

Suspension is a censure, which can only affect the clergy.  A cleric can only be suspended if he has been found guilty of committing a crime under canon law (c. 1333).  The penalty of suspension falls into the same category of punishments as excommunication (cf. c. 1312.1, n.1), which should give readers a good idea of how serious a penalty it is intended to be!

A priest who is suspended is generally prohibited from celebrating the sacraments.  Depending on his role at the time of his suspension, he may also be prohibited from exercising the authority attached to his position (as pastor of a parish, professor of theology, etc.).  The specific actions that the cleric is prohibited from doing are normally spelled out in the formal decree declaring his suspension—they may vary depending on the situation.

Nowadays, we are unfortunately all too familiar with scenarios involving clergy who’ve been suspended, because it’s the standard penalty imposed in cases involving sexual abuse.  But abusive priests aren’t the only ones who can be suspended: to cite a different example, another crime (called a delict in canon law) that is punishable by suspension is the use of physical force against a bishop (c. 1370.2).  Suspending a cleric invariably involves a grave crime, and so the term “suspend” cannot be tossed about lightly.

Consequently, when Bishop Zurek stated that he was suspending Fr. Pavone, and described in the same letter “persistent questions and concerns by clergy and laity regarding the transactions of millions of dollars of donations to the PFL,” it naturally sounded like he was penalizing Father for some criminal sort of financial mismanagement by suspending him—and so both the media and many of the Catholic faithful reasonably concluded that he was.  At the same time, the wording of the letter indicates that the bishop had not definitively established that donations to Priests for Life had been misused—note that Bishop Zurek speaks only of “deep concerns” and “the potential financial scandal that might arise” if it is ever determined that mishandling of donations has indeed taken place.  In other words, the bishop did not state that Fr. Pavone had actually done anything criminal—so announcing that he was “suspended” did not logically follow.

That’s undoubtedly why on September 13, 2011, Fr. Pavone publicly protested against the suggestion that he was suspended, insisting, “I continue to retain all my priestly faculties and continue to be a priest in ‘good standing’ in the Church.  The bishop does not dispute this fact.”  When he appealed Bishop Zurek’s decision to “suspend” him to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy (which has jurisdiction over such a case), Fr. Pavone was canonically on solid footing: he had not been found guilty of any delict, and thus could not legally be suspended.

Officials in the Diocese of Amarillo seem to have realized almost immediately that the bishop’s choice of words had been (to put it mildly!) less than precise.  The diocese’s Vicar for Clergy, Msgr.  Harold Waldow, “clarified” the bishop’s statement just two days later, on September 15:

Because there is a dispute [about the financial audits of Priests for Life and its affiliated organizations]… does not mean that Father Pavone is being charged with any malfeasance or being accused of any wrongdoing with the financial matters of Priests for Life.

There you have it: Fr. Pavone was not suspended, because he had not committed any delict.

Interestingly, on October 5, 2011, the local Amarillo newspaper published an article on the subject, with extensive quotations from Bishop Zurek.  Note that throughout the entire piece, the term “suspend” is nowhere to be found, having now been replaced with phrases like “barred… from ministry outside the diocese,” “limited… to duties within the Diocese,” and “Zurek’s order to return to Amarillo.”  The odds that this is merely a coincidence seem slim!  What is much more likely is that diocesan officials had realized the need to deliberately avoid describing Fr. Pavone’s recall to Amarillo as a “suspension.”

In short, what the bishop had clearly intended was to reassign Fr. Pavone to a different ministry, not to punish him for committing a crime.  Had Bishop Zurek really meant to impose the sanction of suspension on Fr. Pavone, we could expect his letter to have been much more explicit.  A proper decree would have explained in detail what delict(s) Father had committed, and would also have noted specifically what the conditions of Father’s suspension were to be.  Note that under canon 1333 (mentioned above), the penalty of suspension by definition limits a cleric’s ministerial activities in a much more far-reaching way than Bishop Zurek indicated in his letter.  Simply reassigning a priest from one ministry to another does not, in and of itself, constitute a restriction that is typically commensurate with suspension—and this fact alone was already a pretty obvious sign that Fr. Pavone was not actually being suspended.

In short, to a canon lawyer reading Bishop Zurek’s letter, his intention seems clear (even if his wording definitely was not).  But most Catholics who read about this whole situation are non-canonists, of course, and to them it was anything but!  There is no question that it did some entirely unwarranted damage to Fr. Pavone’s reputation.  And so it is completely understandable that he immediately sought to clear his name in a very public way, by getting the Vatican to officially weigh in on the case.

In the meantime (and as was already mentioned in Part I), when Fr. Pavone noted  in his September 13, 2011 statement that he was appealing the bishop’s decision to the Vatican, he observed that

…because I have begun this process of appeal to Rome, the Bishop’s order that I return to Amarillo has been effectively suspended.  Nevertheless, because of my great respect for this Bishop and my commitment to be fully obedient at all times, I am reporting to Amarillo this Tuesday…

This is, however, a legal oversimplification.  Canon 1353 states that an appeal against a decree which imposes a penalty, suspends the execution of the penalty.  Fr. Pavone is Pavonemicrophonesuggesting here that because he had appealed to the Vatican, he did not have to return to Amarillo as Bishop Zurek had ordered.  But that would only be true if returning to Amarillo was part of a punishment for being suspended—and as we just saw, the diocese was already saying publicly that Fr. Pavone had not been accused of any wrongdoing.  Fr. Pavone himself had rightly insisted that he remained a priest “in good standing,” and was not under any sanction—and the diocese agreed.  But that in turn means his reassignment to ministry in Amarillo was not a punishment, and therefore it could not be deferred.

What tragic confusion, and all because of one poorly chosen word in the bishop’s letter!  If Bishop Zurek had written that same September 9, 2011 letter, but without using the word “suspend,” much grief and misunderstanding might have been avoided.  This is, unfortunately, a “good” example of the need for tremendous precision when writing any document involving legal matters, particularly those regarding a person’s reputation.  Once that letter was published, the horse was out of the barn—and while the diocese quickly made multiple attempts to publicly correct the mistake, damage was already irreparably done.

But the story isn’t finished.  It appears that several months ago, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy weighed in on Fr. Pavone’s case.  Bishop Zurek summarized their decision in his June 20, 2012 public statement, mentioned already in Part I:

In its decree of May 18, 2012, the Congregation for the Clergy has sustained Father Frank A. Pavone’s appeal of his suspension from ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo and his appointment from me on October 4, 2011 as Chaplain of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in Channing, Texas.  Father Pavone is to continue his ministry as chaplain until further notice.

Canonically, this makes perfect sense.  It appears that there were two parts to the Vatican’s decision.  Firstly, the Congregation confirmed that Fr. Pavone was not suspended.  Secondly, it confirmed that Fr. Pavone was indeed assigned by Bishop Zurek to a different ministry, within the Diocese of Amarillo.  In other words, the Vatican evidently analyzed the situation as just described above: the bishop’s September 9, 2011 letter removing Fr. Pavone from Priests for Life constituted notice that Father was being reassigned, and not that he was being penalized.

Since Fr. Pavone has been assigned to a chaplaincy within the diocese where he is incardinated, by the bishop who is his lawful superior, it is completely reasonable that Bishop Zurek says in the next sentence that Father will remain in his current assignment “until further notice.”  As discussed in Part I, assignments of diocesan clergy are the diocesan bishop’s prerogative.  Priests don’t necessarily minister where they want to; they work where they are told to.

This ecclesiological reality makes the statement that can currently be found on the website of Priests for Life (already quoted in Part I) all the more puzzling: “While Fr. Frank is in Amarillo temporarily at the request of his bishop, he is not giving talks around the country and is not appearing on EWTN (again, temporarily.)”  Since Bishop Zurek has indicated that Fr. Pavone’s current assignment is open-ended, why does Priests for Life assert that it is “temporary”?  There’s no easy answer to this one, other than to observe that those at Priests for Life may not fully understand the canonical situation—or may not want to.

How do the bishop’s assertions of financial irregularities at Priests for Life figure into all this?  Strictly speaking, when Bishop Zurek decided to reassign Fr. Pavone to a new ministry, he didn’t need to justify his decision.  He certainly had no legal obligation to pen a letter to his fellow bishops—so why did he do just that?  There are several good reasons why he might have decided to do this, but two stand out.

Firstly, Fr. Pavone quickly announced to reporters that if he can’t be assigned to work at Priests for Life as a priest of Amarillo, he intends to transfer to another diocese whose bishop will allow him to work where he wants.  As was discussed in Part I, Fr. Pavone had already been excardinated from the Archdiocese of New York, and incardinated into the Diocese of Amarillo—so if he were to leave Amarillo, it would be the second time that he was excardinated from one diocese and incardinated into a new one.  This would naturally require a bishop of yet another diocese to be willing to accept Fr. Pavone.  Bishop Zurek may rightly have felt that any bishop who might be considering taking Father into his diocese is entitled to have the full story on the situation.

Speaking in general, it’s common practice for bishops to warn each other about issues which might spill over from one diocese into other ones.  If, let’s say, someone is travelling from diocese to diocese masquerading as a priest or sister, raising funds for nonexistent Catholic charities, a bishop naturally will advise other bishops to be on the alert!  There’s nothing particularly unusual about bishops sending/receiving such a letter; these sorts of problems arise with a regularity that would probably surprise the average lay-Catholic.  So since Bishop Zurek was concerned about financial irregularities at Priests for Life, and since Fr. Pavone apparently was looking for a new diocesan bishop who would accept him, it was only prudent for Bishop Zurek to alert his brother bishops to the larger picture.  Another bishop might nonetheless decide to overlook these concerns, and agree to take Fr. Pavone and his Priests for Life ministry into his diocese; but if in future it didn’t work out, at least the new bishop wouldn’t be able to claim that he hadn’t been forewarned!

Another obvious reason why Bishop Zurek might have written to his fellow bishops is to defend himself against unjust accusations that he is “not pro-life” in general, or that he is somehow opposed to the actual work done by Priests for Life.  His point may have been to emphasize that he took this particular action not because he wants to hamper pro-life activity per se, but because of substantive concerns about the situation at this specific pro-life organization right now—an organization that was being run by one of his own priests, and for which he and the Amarillo Diocese could therefore potentially be held responsible in future.  Sadly, subsequent events showed that he was right to be concerned.  A group of protestors from a number of different pro-life groups immediately planned to picket “many of the Diocese’s forty-nine parish churches…  Parental warning signs will be posted as a courtesy near targeted churches, to caution parents of small children that they may wish to attend Mass elsewhere.”  In other words, because they disapproved of Bishop Zurek’s decision, these persons intended to disrupt Sunday Mass attendance by hundreds of ordinary Catholics who happen to live in the Amarillo Diocese!

If these protestors were non-Catholics, they presumably were unaware of the need for the Catholic clergy to obey their hierarchical superiors, and for the faithful to show a Catholic bishop respect even if they strongly disagree with one of his decisions.  If they were Catholics, however, it’s difficult to find any justification for their planned aggressive tactics—which also involved “a fleet of large billboard trucks bearing signs… accompanied by aircraft towing large aerial billboards.”  Their shockingly disrespectful, offensive statements about Bishop Zurek (which will not be repeated here) were utterly inexcusable.  Oddly, it doesn’t appear that either Priests for Life, or Fr. Pavone himself, publicly condemned this group and/or urged it to show restraint and respect for the Bishop of Amarillo and the Catholics of the diocese.

It’s amazing how many seem to think that if a person is truly pro-life, he must necessarily feel that an individual pro-life organization (Priests for Life) must be headed by a particular person (Fr. Pavone)— and that anyone in disagreement automatically must be an abortion-supporter.  In the face of such illogic, no wonder the Bishop of Amarillo felt it necessary to issue a letter that sounds somewhat defensive!  It’s a sad state of affairs when a bishop is so publicly bombarded for an administrative action which he had the authority to make—even when he voluntarily provided an explanation for why he did it.

To sum up: errors were made in this unfortunate incident by both parties.  The end-result, however, cannot be impugned from a canonical standpoint, as the Vatican’s decision shows.  Catholics and non-Catholics alike are free to think that Fr. Pavone really should be working at Priests for Life instead of as a chaplain in the Amarillo Diocese, if they want to—but that does not detract from the respect that Catholics owe to members of the Catholic hierarchy, nor from the charity and basic courtesy that we all owe to each other as human beings.  If, in this case, readers strongly favor one side over the other, maybe it would be best to consider that if we are all working for the greater glory of God, we really shouldn’t consider ourselves to be on different “sides” in the first place.  After all, we’re all supposed to be on the same side—God’s side.

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