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Staten Island Advance

January 18, 2003

Serving for life

National director of Priests for Life marks his 10th year in the job

By LESLIE PALMA-SIMONCEK

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE

When Priests for Life moved its national headquarters to Staten Island five years ago, office space was so limited that the organization's warehouse was located in a Bay Terrace basement.

But space is no longer an issue for Priests for Life, whose national director, the Rev. Frank Pavone, this year marks his 10th anniversary as leader of the Roman Catholic pro-life group.

Since June 2001, Priests for Life has been headquartered in a 16,000-square-foot building on Ebbitts Street in New Dorp. With a $7 million annual budget, the donor-supported organization now employs a staff of 40 and oversees a network of volunteers all devoted to the pro-life cause.

"My life is ending abortion," Father Pavone said in an interview this week. "There's no question about that."

Father Pavone celebrates his 10th anniversary at the helm as pro-life groups across the nation prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe vs. Wade, that legalized abortion here.

As always, Father Pavone will be involved with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and will speak at a two-day conference that precedes it.

And as always, he is optimistic that the pro-life message is being heard. He predicts that Congress this year will pass a ban on partial-birth abortions, and that ban will trigger a shift in the way Americans view abortion.

"For the first time since Roe vs. Wade, our country has started to go in the other direction," he said. "That will send a message to the whole world."

The number of abortions performed annually in the United States has dropped from a high of 1.6 million in the mid 1980s to 1.2 million a year, Father Pavone said, quoting statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that tracks reproductive health trends.

But some 4,000 abortions still are performed in the U.S. every day, which is the reason Father Pavone and the three priests on staff at Priests for Life crisscross the country on a dizzying schedule, speaking to parishes and leading conferences and seminars on pro-life issues.

Father Pavone said he and the other priest associates -- the Rev. Peter West, the Rev. Denis Wilde, O.S.A., and the Rev. Walter Quinn -- "have hit all 50 states. No diocese has been left untouched. There's no community that's too small for us to go to."

Although he does not know what his own airline miles tally, he conceded that he has "frequent flier privileges on every airline."

STARTED IN CALIFORNIA

Priests for Life was formed by the Rev. Lee Kaylor in California in 1991. Father Pavone, a native of Port Chester, N.Y., who became active in pro-life causes as a teenager, took over the organization in 1993. Cardinal John J. O'Connor released him from his diocesan duties so he could devote himself to his pro-life work.

The organization was headquartered in Port Chester for several years but its mailing address and warehouse were on Staten Island.

The group came here permanently in 1997 at the suggestion of Anthony DeStefano, the executive director. At that time Father Pavone was living in Rome while serving on the Pontifical Council for the Family and Priests for Life set up shop in a few cramped offices in Dongan Hills.

The organization completed its move to New Dorp two years ago.

"This is a fully engaging mission," Fr. Pavone said. "I cannot in a million years ever justify walking away from it."

IN THE OFFICE, ON THE ROAD

Father Pavone's office is a study in controlled chaos. Piles of paperwork that have long since overfilled the shelves are stacked on the floor. Research papers bump up against activism projects. A neat freak might flip but Father Pavone says he knows where everything is, and as proof, pulls out a CD that contains conversations taped at an abortion-providers conference.

"We got this from spies," he said. "It's important for us to know what the abortion people are saying to each other. If you want to know what is really going on, you go to the ones who are doing it."

Much of the priest's work takes place away from the New Dorp office.

Father Pavone has appeared for eight years on a show broadcast by the Eternal Word Television Network and he continues to write columns that are published in various Catholic publications across the country. He also does a radio show and is a frequent guest on television talk shows, including some, like "Hannity & Colmes," that are nationally syndicated.

Priests for Life also is active politically, working to put the abortion issue in the forefront for voters and politicians alike.

"We were very active in the elections in 2000 and last year," he said. "We stressed the point that religious believers need to be getting out and voting, and stressed the priority importance of a candidate's stand on abortion as a reflection of their attitude on protecting vulnerable life."

Although Priests for Life's primary mission is to empower priests to become more involved in the pro-life cause, Father Pavone sees the effort as an ecumenical one, and recently he was elected president of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, an umbrella group that unites mainline Protestant organizations working to end abortion.

A PERSONAL TRIUMPH

During a recent working trip to Orlando, Fla., Father Pavone had the chance to meet a 7-year-old girl whose birth was very special to him.

The girl's mother was inside an abortion clinic in Orlando, prepared to terminate her pregnancy, when she looked outside at the protesters gathered and spotted a priest in his Roman collar.

"She said that our prayers strengthened her," Father Pavone recalled.

Now the little girl born of that pregnancy is named Guadalupe, in honor of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that Father Pavone's group carried to the abortion clinic.

"It was such an amazing thing," to meet her, he said of the little girl who doesn't yet understand their connection. "She said she wants to be a doctor, a doctor for children."

On the other hand, Father Pavone has his detractors -- oddly enough, they come both from the pro-life and the pro-choice camps.

In April 2001, Father Pavone was being honored for his election work by the National Right to Life Committee. A state senator, Eric Schneiderman, who represents parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, organized a protest outside the Waldorf Astoria to accuse Father Pavone of supporting violence in the fight against abortion. The Right to Life Committee hired two bodyguards who never left Father Pavone's side.

On the other side of the coin, a pro-life Web site recently bestowed upon him the "Neville Chamberlain Award," for appeasing pro-choice advocates with his vow to give $50,000 to anyone who provides authorities with information on people involved in shootings at abortion clinics.

"I always condemn violence," Father Pavone said. "But we do encourage people to come out there and protest. The right to do that is essentially American."

Father Pavone said the very fact that he's controversial shows Priests for Life is doing what it set out to do.

"If the pro-abortion people did not complain about us over the last 10 years, then we would know we were not making an impact," he said. "But they do pay attention to the things we do."

Leslie Palma-Simoncek is the religion editor for the Staten Island Advance.

Priests for Life
PO Box 141172 • Staten Island, NY 10314
Tel. 888-735-3448, (718) 980-4400 • Fax 718-980-6515
mail@priestsforlife.org