National Catholic Register
Joseph A. D'Agostino
Paul Schenck, 45, born Jewish in New
Jersey, was an ordained Episcopalian minister before becoming Catholic.
He spent a lifetime in Christian ministry and pro-life activism, even
defending the right to public pro-life speech in a case that reached the Supreme
Court. He is married with eight children and earlier this year entered the
Schenck is executive director of
Gospel of Life Ministries, which has its offices on Capitol Hill in
Washington, D.C. He spoke to Register correspondent Joseph A. D'Agostino.
Did you consider yourself Jewish when you were a child?
Oh yes, absolutely. We went to Hebrew school. It was a Reform Hebrew school,
so Judaism was a social identification slightly more than a religious
identification. But nevertheless, we understood ourselves to be religiously
Jewish, though we were not observant.
Your family fled to America, right?
My family fled the pogroms to come to the United States. My uncle was
captured by Cossacks and held for ransom, threatened with being killed as a
4-year-old child, and the whole shtetl [Jewish community] had to raise a ransom
to get his life back. The family that stayed behind in Minsk perished entirely,
evaporated in the Holocaust. My family history was like Edith Stein, like St.
How did you come to be baptized?
My twin brother, Rob, and I at two different times met a group of wonderful
Christians from many different church traditions, including Catholic, who were a
vital witness of faith in our high school. My wife was among them. They so
wonderfully witnessed to Christ living in their lives in this public high
school, I was first drawn to that vital, living Christian faith.
At a New Life mission at a little country Methodist church the editor of
Guideposts magazine gave a public invitation to those who would believe in
Christ and embrace him in faith as their savior. I went forward. It was 1974, so
I was 15 years old.
I was baptized in the Niagara River that following fall on the verge of my
How did you make your way to the Catholic Church?
I think seven years ago I became Catholic in my mind - intellectually
Four years ago, I became Catholic in my heart, and that tied directly to my
being in the Holy Land with the Holy Father for the papal pilgrimage through my
friendship with the bishop of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
When I arrived in Cairo, my host, who was a former student of mine met me at
the airport and said, "You have an appointment at 10 in the morning. You're
never going to imagine with whom."
I said, "No, I can't. Who?" He said, "With Pope John Paul II. There is an
ecumenical encounter at the basilica and you're invited."
So the next morning we went but the police wouldn't let us in.
We didn't have the proper cards. I e-mailed Melkite Bishop John Elya and he
said, "Go over to the Greek patriarchate in Cairo and the Holy Father will be
there this evening and you will meet him there."
So I went over there and stayed the whole day, but that was the day the Greek
archbishop stood up the Holy Father. They were supposed to pray together. He
never came. The Holy Father was there the whole day, so he was off schedule and
had to go back to Rome. So I missed him again.
I came back to the States. I get a call from Bishop Elya. He says, "You have
an appointment to see the Holy Father on Tuesday in Bethlehem. You will
accompany the archbishop of Jerusalem."
So back on the plane, I shot over to Jerusalem again. When I arrived, I went
in simply to announce I was in the country at the patriarchate. They said, "Oh,
His Grace wants to see you." So I saw the archbishop and he said, "You did bring
your Eastern vestments and you'll concelebrate with the Holy Father in Bethlehem
tomorrow?" And I joke now that if I was ever tempted to lie ... He thought I was
a Catholic priest.
So I said, "Your Grace, I'm not Catholic ..." By the way, he is now patriarch
of Antioch, Gregorios III. He said, "Nevertheless, you'll have an honored seat
among the priests tomorrow. You'll see. I'll be there, you'll be there, the Holy
Father will be there, and you'll be absorbed. You'll see ..."
The sacrament was being consecrated around me. It was the most spiritual
moment in my entire life, in anything I have ever done. And then we went to St.
Catherine's Convent with only maybe 25 people. We're walking maybe three or four
or five abreast with the Holy Father. I came home convinced in my heart that I
had to be in the Catholic Church.
I took my time. I was a pastor. I lived in a house owned by the Reformed
Episcopal diocese. How was I going to support my family?
I did something I had never done in my Christian life. I asked a saint for
help. I asked Teresa Benedicta to make it possible for me to become Catholic.
That would have been about 2001. I just began reading, attending Mass here and
there when possible.
Then last summer, I learned about Father Frank Pavone's vision of
establishing an ecumenical initiative that would bring Catholics, evangelicals
and all conscientious Christians together around the life issues.
He wanted to call it Gospel of Life Ministries, and I was already serving as
chairman of the National Clergy Council. I have many strongly pro-life friends
in Protestant ministry.
I went to Father Pavone and asked him about my taking a lead role in building
that organization and it took him about two-and-a-half minutes to answer in the
affirmative. I became the executive director of Gospel of Life Ministries, and
that's what my job description is now, which I call an ecumenical initiative of
Priests for Life.
On the first Sunday in Lent this year, I was received into the Catholic
Church at St. Roch's Church in Staten Island by Father Pavone and Father Leo
Prince, the pastor. My wife and I had our marriage convalidated and I received
Father C.J. McCloskey was the first priest I spoke to asking to be prepared
to become a Catholic. We met three or four times before he went to the United
Kingdom to write his book. His guidance was enormously helpful.
Schenck v. ProChoice Network?
When I was a pastor in western New York, I helped organize the Western New
York Clergy Council, which eventually had 75 members from 20 different churches.
We provided counseling, referral and prayer for women outside of abortion sites.
Five abortion businesses banded together and sued me and anyone working with
me and asked a federal judge to sign a cease-and-desist restraining order to
keep me and anyone acting with me from approaching anybody who wanted an
abortion offering literature, praying for them, singing, even wearing clerical
vestments in their presence -- anything that would be construed by an ordinary
person as being opposed to abortion within 17 counties in western New York.
So that did not mean just outside of abortion businesses. That meant on a
public park bench, it meant on a bus, anywhere within 15 feet of anybody who
wanted an abortion, had an abortion, worked in an abortion business, volunteered
at an abortion site. It was so bizarre that I honestly didn't take it seriously.
I didn't even get a lawyer. I went into court myself and I said, "Your Honor,
I'm not a lawyer, I don't have a law degree, but I've read the Constitution and
this is so blatantly opposed to the First Amendment." Ten months later he signed
the order against me, granting them almost everything.
That Christmas my brother and I and three others went out in front of a post
office behind which was an abortion business. On the public sidewalk we passed
out New Testaments and tracts by Billy Graham called "Peace with God." .. We
were cited; I was convicted for violating the order on five counts. We appealed.
It went on for seven years and $778,000 in defense expenses.
How did it turn out?
Before I went to prison I appealed to the court of appeals, and while I was
in prison, the case was heard and decided. A three-judge panel decided 2 to 1
that the order was an unconstitutional violation of my First Amendment rights.
So I was let out of jail the next morning, but I was told not to go home but to
go directly to the federal courthouse in Buffalo. I said okay. A month in
federal prison makes you more docile.
I went to the federal courthouse only to be told that the chief federal judge
in New York City had rescinded the finding of the three judge panel and had
granted that the case be reargued en banc review, which meant in front of
the whole panel of federal judges.
Seventeen judges in Manhattan heard the case in January 1995. Two abstained,
seven for me and eight against me, which turned out to be providential because
otherwise I never would have gotten to the Supreme Court. We'd run out of money.
I'd raised $325,000 by that time to pay for my defense.
By that time, Pat Robertson was involved and he said, "Money is no object.
Take it to the Supreme Court." So he would raise almost another half-million
dollars. With the American Center for Law and Justice, we took it to the Supreme
We argued it in October 1996, and the decision came down Feb. 17, 1997, and
it was 8 to 1 in my favor: fundamental violation of my constitutional rights
under the First Amendment. They allowed the restrictions to stay around the
clinic entrances but struck down everything else. Justice Steven Breyer was the
one against me.
I had Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on my side, Justice David Souter on my
Later I met Souter at the court at a reception, and I went up to him. I said,
"Mr. Justice, I just wanted to thank you for voting in my case." He turned to me
and I reached out my hand, but he wouldn't give me his hand. I very awkwardly
stood there in front of people with my hand out and he looked at me and said,
"I'm not inclined to give you my hand, for what you and your brother stand for.
I'm not interested."
I said, "Mr. Justice, just a handshake." He said, "Not interested," and he
turned his back on me.
Justice Clarence Thomas saw and he came over to rescue me and he put his arm
around me and said, "Tell me the about your church. I want to hear about your
work with your brother." But Souter was petty.