CATHOLIC NEW YORK
March 15, 2001
Priests for Life on Staten Island launches nationwide campaign against
By Brian Caulfield
Like most pro-life activists, Father Frank A. Pavone dreams of ending
abortion in America. Unlike most others, however, he has a detailed plan, a
full-time staff, a spacious headquarters and millions of dollars for
achieving his dream.
He speaks in certain terms: abortion kills children, ruins
women's lives and undermines the moral fabric of our nation. To stop it, he is
making the media his message.
Months after launching a national education campaign that had
significant impact on last November's election, he and his organization, Priests
for Life, are planning a $3.2 million media effort. Four 30-second television
advertisements will be appearing soon in large markets... during popular viewing
hours. Avoiding controversial issues, the ads appeal to the heart, presenting
abortion as a negative experience that leaves a void in the lives of those who
are touched by it. Each concludes with the message: "The doors of the Church are
open," inviting viewers to visit their local parishes or log on to Priests for
Life's Web site. A toll-free number, 1-800-5-WE-CARE, connects to a
national referral service for post-abortion healing.
A press conference to announce the media initiatives will be
held Thursday, March 29, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Last summer Father Pavone was at the center of a media frenzy there when he
announced the educational campaign aimed at Catholic politicians and voters.
Media people grilled him for two hours on abortion and the relationship between
church and state.
"It was like Pro-Life 101," recalled Jerry Horn, senior
advisor of Priests for Life. "We were getting our message directly to the major
media and they wouldn't let us go."
A full-page ad in The New York Times last July caused equal
stir. Framed in the style of the Declaration of Independence, with an image of
an American flag in the background, the ad began, "We, the undersigned Catholic
Priests..." Citing two documents of the U.S. bishops, "Living the Gospel of
Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" and "Faithful Citizenship: Civic
Responsibility for a New Millennium," the ad declared, "To those who would allow
abortion and claim to be Christian, we say, "Stop being a scandal to the Gospel
of Jesus Christ."
The latest advertising effort is part of a professional
strategy to bypass the pro-abortion elements in the media and society and appeal
directly to the people.
"This is a gradual unfolding of what has always been our
driving mission," said Father Pavone, a priest of the New York Archdiocese who
has served as national director of Priests for Life since 1993. "We are
absolutely determined to bring this abortion tragedy to an end."
His efforts have drawn the attention of friends and foes.
Steve Wagner, a public opinion expert who has studied the Catholic vote for the
past two years, called Father Pavone the most influential individual in the last
presidential campaign, during which the Bush team consulted Father Pavone on
pro-life and Catholic issues.
The National Right to Life Committee is honoring him at the
Proudly Pro Life Dinner April 25 at the Waldorf-Astoria.
U.S. bishops have praised his use of their document and he
has letters of encouragement from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Cardinal Alfonso
Lopez Trujillo, whom he worked under for two years at the Pontifical Council for
the Family in Rome, and Cardinal O'Connor, who released him from archdiocesan
duties to head up Priests for Life.
The newly renovated, two-story building on Staten Island
which houses the organization's offices is called the John Cardinal O'Connor
Not surprisingly, Father Pavone has been branded an extremist
by the Feminist Majority and the left-wing Institute for Democracy Studies,
which warned of his organization's "carefully coiffed mainstream image."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State vowed to monitor Father
Pavone's "tainted project" and threatened to inform the Internal Revenue Service
of any activity that might compromise his tax-exempt status.
Yet even faithful Catholics may raise their eyebrows over the
most recent campaign. After all, what are a bunch of priests doing raising
millions of dollars for what they call a TV blitz? Shouldn't they stay in the
pulpits and leave the worldly work to the laity?
Father Pavone hears the objection often and has a ready
answer. Like the Church itself, Priests for Life is not just for the clergy, and
its primary role is to provide for the work and welfare of lay persons, he said.
About 45,000 priests and deacons around the country are on the mailing
list. But thousands of lay people are associated with the organization, which
they support with $15 membership fees and larger donations, and they look to the
organization for guidance and encouragement in their pro-life work.
"Whatever pro-life people are doing, we want to be there with
them. We want to model our ministry on the priest in the parish," he stated.
"There is nothing that goes on in the parish that the priest is not a part of.
He's not there to do everything, but to be an inspiration, a fatherly
guide who gives life to everything in the parish. That's how we see ourselves in
the pro-life movement."
There is also the question of money. Where does Priests for
Life get millions to mount the airwaves and billboards? From a number of major
donors and thousands of smaller ones who send in their $25 and $50 each month,
Father Pavone says. Donors are sought through direct mail and grassroots
contacts he and his staff have built through visits to hundreds of parishes over
One of them is Joseph Brinck, a business owner in Ohio, who
met Father Pavone during his visit a few years ago to his suburban parish.
"The Catholic Church is absolutely key to the struggle
against abortion, and Father Frank is the heart of that," he told CNY. "I
support them financially and have introduced my friends to being supporters."
The number of donors increased dramatically last summer after
Father Pavone announced the educational campaign aimed at putting a pro-life
president in office. Contrary to the picture his opponents paint, he did not
receive his marching orders or money from the Republican Party, he said.
The effort was "an imperative from the heart of the Church
herself," he said. "We saw what was at stake for the pro-life movement, but we
did not target a particular party or candidate. What we did would have been the
same no matter what party took what position. People have said that we helped
the Republican Party, but this was not necessarily true. We published the
existence of Democrats for Life and took a consistent stand against the death
Being a priest, his outreach is directed toward souls as
well. He has had lunch with abortionists, correspondence with abortion advocates
and "high-level meetings with media people about the abortion issue." Too many
pro-life people write off the media as hopelessly biased, "but they are human
beings too ...If they are willing to meet with us, we're anxious to meet with
them," he said.
Years ago he befriended Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff in the Roe
vs. Wade decision which legalized abortion in America. She was baptized by
evangelical Christians, and in 1998 Father Pavone received her into the Catholic
"He's one of the greatest mentors I've ever had," she said in
an interview from Texas. "He's always treated me as an individual person, and
through his guidance I've come to love my Church."
The Priests for Life staff includes 20 lay persons and three
other priests who work full-time for the organization. Like Father Pavone, the
priests travel throughout the country to parishes, pro-life groups, seminaries
and conferences. Father Peter J. West is from the Newark Archdiocese in New
Jersey, and Fathers Denis G. Wilde, O.S.A., and Walter J. Quinn, O.S.A., have
been released for the work by their superiors in the Augustinian order.
Father Quinn, ordained 40 years, calls himself the
"granddaddy" of the group. He has served in a number of parishes, including St.
Nicholas of Tolentine in the Bronx, but now considers pro-life work the most
important in the Church.
The three 30-second television ads, produced by an agency in
Grand Rapids, Mich., focus on the hurt and loss of abortion. One shows a woman
watching her small daughter blowing out birthday candles as the child
disappears, and a man watching his son playing baseball and disappearing as he
rounds first base. A narrator states, "If you know that special moments in your
life have been missing since your abortion…the doors of the Church are open."
Another shows children telling what they want to be when they
grow up as the narrator says, "The choice to have an abortion alters the course
of the future. If you're struggling with this decision, the doors of the Church
Anthony DeStefano, executive director of Priests for Life,
says that the spots are designed to avoid controversy and politics and to stress
that millions of men and women in America are suffering silently over abortion.
"We don't show aborted babies," he said. "But the message still gets through.
The premise of the ads is that abortion hurts, that it destroys something
precious, someone precious. We end by saying the Church recognizes this and is
there to help with the healing."
Father Pavone added, "They are also designed to light a spark
among priests. If they see an ad that says the church doors are open, they would
be inclined to prepare themselves to help."
Part of the work of his organization is to help fellow
priests in that preparation. As his assistant, Janet Morana, sees it, "From the
time he gets up to the time he goes to sleep, Father Frank is working to stop
Besides spreading the word in person, he appears regularly on
the Eternal Word Television Network, provides an hour-long show for a Catholic
radio network which he records in his own studio, sends tapes on contemporary
issues to Vatican Radio, writes a bi-monthly column which goes free to all
diocesan newspapers and updates daily the Priests for Life Web site. He has
written dozens of handy pamphlets on a range of topics that are sent around the
Citing Pope John Paul II's message on World Communications
Day, he said, "The Church must be involved in this powerful medium of mass
communications. We cannot surrender the field to those who oppose life."