July 19, 2000
WASHINGTON - Led by a fiery former curate of St. Charles R.C. Church in Oakwood, a national group of Catholic priests is vowing to shake up the 2000 elections with a $1 million campaign to focus attention on abortion and hold pro-choice politicians - especially Catholics - accountable.
"They have become false prophets," the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of the Dongan Hills-based Priests For Life, said at a press conference here, where he was joined by some two dozen Catholic clergymen from around the country.
Father Pavone stressed the campaign would stop short of denouncing specific elected officials and challengers.
"We are not naming names ... we are not taking part in any partisan [activities]," Father Pavone said.
But he acknowledged that individual pro-choice politicians would feel pressure anyway. Having heard the message, "we can trust the voters to put two and two together," Father Pavone explained.
He indicated that the purpose of the campaign would be to challenge politicians who, by running for office as "pro-choice Catholics," convey the impression that support for abortion rights is acceptable for members of the church. There is not more than one Catholic teaching on abortion," he said. "Furthermore, this is not just a Catholic issue, but one of fundamental human rights."
"To supporters of abortion who profess Christianity, we say, 'Stop being a scandal to the gospel of Jesus Christ,'" added the Dongan Hills priest.
The Priests for Life effort immediately drew fire from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
"I believe this is a tainted campaign," said Barry Lynn, director of the organization.
Lynn said Father Pavone's group was "very close to falling over the forbidden line" that restricts tax-exempt religious organizations from taking part in partisan politics, "I believe that it is clear that they are targeting specific races," he said.
As evidence, he cited news reports that members of Priests for Life had sought meetings recently with a number of prominent pro-choice elected officials, including members of Congress and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who is reportedly under consideration to be GOP presidential contender George W. Bush's running mate.
With an eye toward filing a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, Lynn said Americans United would be "watching very closely the placement of ads" produced by the group over the next few months.
Father Pavone denied seeing Ridge, but said his group was "ready to talk to anybody."
Rep. Vito Fossella, a pro-life Republican, said he saw nothing objectionable about the campaign.
"It is a free country ... If that is what they want to do, all the more power to them," Fossella said.
But he said that although it was his "personal view" abortion was wrong, in the end "it is up to the voters to decide what is material." Moreover, said Fossella, other issues will matter in voters' decisions on which candidates to support.
Father Pavone said his group's campaign will feature three television commercials, to be made later this month and aired at the end of August. One will reportedly feature Father Pavone quoting from a recent bishops' statement that warned pro-choice lawmakers to "consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk."
Aimed at voters in general, another ad will seek to raise the profile of abortion in the elections by labeling it "the most important issue."
"Abortion is the most frequently performed operation in America today and yet it has never been seen on television," he said.
Now the full-time director of Priests for Life, Father Pavone started forming the group in the early 1990s at the direction of the late Cardinal John J. O'Connor.
The group currently has about 6,000 priests and 40,000 lay people as members. It is also supported by a number of pro-life Protestant and Jewish organizations.
The group will also spend $250,000 for print advertising and the establishment of a telephone bank to encourage priests across the country to use their pulpits for the anti-abortion cause and to discuss the issue with local elected officials, Father Pavone explained.
He said his group was prepared to spend more than the $1 million currently allocated for the crusade, and that it would be financed from contributions sent in by backers, including viewers of its regular cable television program, "Defending Life."
Father Pavone indicated the campaign would also seek to awaken Catholic voters to the vehemence of the church's opposition to abortion. He said they "had an obligation to vote" and did "not cease to be believers when they enter the voting booth."
"The hands lifted up to God to say 'amen'... are the same hands that push the lever down in the voting booth," Father Pavone said. "We don't have four hands, a pair for the church and a pair for the voting booth."