By NICOLE WINFIELD
VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican has defrocked an anti-abortion U.S. priest, Frank Pavone, for what it said were “blasphemous communications on social media” as well as “persistent disobedience” of his bishop who repeatedly told him to stop his partisan activism for Donald Trump.
A letter to U.S. bishops from the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, obtained Sunday, said that the decision against Pavone, who heads the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, had been taken Nov. 9, and that there was no chance for an appeal.
Pavone has been in conflict with the bishop of Amarillo, Texas, for over a decade over his pro-life and partisan political activities that came to a head in 2016 when he put an aborted fetus on an altar and posted a video of it on two social media sites. The video was accompanied by a post saying that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform would allow abortion to continue and that Trump and the Republican platform wanted to protect unborn children.
Even before then, Pavone successfully appealed 2011 restrictions on his ministry that Amarillo Bishop Patrick Zurek had placed on him.
Pavone remained a firm supporter of Trump and in 2020 disputed the outcome of the election won by Joe Biden. Ahead of the election, the Amarillo diocese denounced Pavone’s use of social media for political ends, distanced the diocese from him and said his positions weren’t consistent with Catholic teaching.
Pavone relocated from Amarillo and was allowed to move to Colorado Springs, Colorado. His Twitter handle still features him wearing a “MAGA” hat with a background photo of former President Trump, who is praised by many conservatives for his Supreme Court nominees who helped overturn the constitutional right to abortion in the United States.
In a tweet Sunday, Pavone sounded defiant, comparing his fate to that of the unborn.
“So in every profession, including the priesthood, if you defend the #unborn, you will be treated like them! The only difference is that when we are ‘aborted,’ we continue to speak, loud and clear.”
He later appeared in a social media video wearing a black leather biker jacket over his priestly collar against a faux backdrop of St. Peter’s Basilica vowing that the anti-abortion “war” would continue and denouncing the “cancel culture” of the church that he said had persecuted him for decades.
In a statement on his Priest For Life website, he said that his laicization was “the result of an abusive process” and that he was considering unspecified legal action against unnamed U.S. bishops.
His supporters immediately denounced the defrocking, including the bishop of Tyler, Texas, Joseph Strickland, who referred to U.S. President Joe Biden’s support for abortion rights as “evil.”
“The blasphemy is that this holy priest is canceled while an evil president promotes the denial of truth & the murder of the unborn at every turn, Vatican officials promote immorality & denial of the deposit of faith & priests promote gender confusion devastating lives…evil,” Strickland tweeted.
In his letter, Pierre cited information from the Congregation for Clergy that Pavone had been laicized — he can no longer present himself as a priest — after being found guilty in a canonical proceeding “of blasphemous communications on social media and of persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop.” The letter was first reported by Catholic News Agency.
The statement said Pavone was given “ample opportunity to defend himself” as well as to submit to his bishop. “It was determined that Father Pavone had no reasonable justification for his actions.”
The statement concluded that since Priests for Life is not a Catholic organization, it would be up to the group to determine whether he could continue his role “as a lay person.”
Laicization, or being reduced to the lay state, is one of the harshest sanctions in the church’s canon law for priests.