Inside the Unholy Sex Scandal Rocking Trump’s Ex-Adviser

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Reuters
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Frank Pavone, a defrocked priest who was formerly a Catholic adviser to Donald Trump, is engulfed in a sex scandal that is rocking the anti-abortion movement.

Pavone, 64, is the director of Priests for Life, a non-profit that funnels millions of dollars a year into the anti-abortion movement.

He is also an outspoken activist whose political activities have brought him into repeated conflict with the Catholic Church. In December 2022, he was defrocked by the Vatican after repeated clashes with his bishop over his use of social media to advocate conservative political causes.

Now, at least four different women have accused Pavone of sexual misconduct according to reporting by The Pillar. Pavone and Priests for Life have strongly denied the accusations.

The women, some of whom gave their accounts anonymously, accuse Pavone of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, ranging from unwanted sexual advances, non-consensual touching, grooming and lewd suggestions.

The allegations span a period of almost twenty years, from the late 1990s until 2018.

Two former members of Priests for Life have made public statements condemning Pavone’s alleged actions and calling for him to step down.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Rev. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, leads a prayer during the March for Life anti-abortion rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, January 22, 2009. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Reuters</div>

Rev. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, leads a prayer during the March for Life anti-abortion rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, January 22, 2009.

Reuters

One is Father Stephen Imbarrato, who served as pastoral team member at Priests for Life from 2015 to 2019.

Imbarrato told The Daily Beast that in 2017 he was approached by a woman who said she had experienced sexual harassment from Pavone while working at the organization. He counseled her until she quit at the end of 2018.

“I only had direct knowledge of one victim, the woman I counseled over a long period of time,” Imbarrato told The Daily Beast via email. “That there were other victims over the years, were to me, suspicions that I could not verify, but I do believe these women who came forward and they are now proof of those suspicions.”

Imbarrato said he was bound by priestly confidentiality to the woman, but that he reported Pavone’s actions to Anthony DeStefano and Priest for Life’s board of directors.

“Priests for Life had an excellent sexual harassment policy on the books. But they had no human resource department and their sexual-harassment committee reported to, and was headed by, Frank Pavone. So it was neither safe nor independent,” Imbarrato says. “I went directly to the board and demanded a safe and confidential, independent sexual harassment committee that reported to the board directly.”

After the board of Priests for Life instituted a committee to tackle sexual harassment in 2018, Imbaratto says he resigned his post. He had lost faith in Pavone and his organization, he told The Daily Beast. Imbarrato is now calling on Pavone to resign and for an independent investigation into his actions.

“We have been enormously saddened by recent efforts of some to revisit old accusations that contain numerous inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and mistruths, that have already been addressed,” Priests for Life said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Father Pavone’s bishop investigated these claims over a decade ago and subsequently confirmed him to be in good standing and fully suitable for ministry. Father Pavone faithfully served the priesthood during his 34 years of service.”

The organization also dismissed the allegations made by Imbarrato, describing them as “further falsehoods.”

“Sadly, this former member was unhappy with his assigned duties during the few years he spent with us, and he has been very vocal about his disdain for our national director. His accusations are deliberately spiteful,” a spokesperson for Priests for Life told The Daily Beast.

Andrew Smith, who served on the board of Priests for Life from 2014 to 2021, also believes Pavone should step down.

“I have been very surprised to see the reaction from Priests for Life has been solely one of victimization and self-aggrandizement,” Smith wrote in a statement published on Church Militant. “I frankly expected better. I have seen no public expression of sorrow or regret at these events, in interview after interview, all that has been claimed is victimhood.”

The allegations

The earliest known accusation against Pavone dates from 1999, when a woman in her early 20s working at Priests for Life said was targeted by Pavone, according to an account given anonymously to The Pillar.

She was hired on the spot, despite having no qualifications for the job, the woman says, and asked by Pavone to relocate to New York City, where the organization was based. She recalls that Pavone asked “if I liked roller coasters, and if I ate seafood,” the woman said.

While she worked in the organization’s office in Staten Island, Pavone would frequently touch her hair and put his arms around her while she typed at the computer, she says. He referred to her as his “spiritual daughter” and told her to call him “Dad,” the woman alleges. On a few occasions, she noticed that her bra was unhooked after Pavone had been rubbing her back, she says.

“He was this pro-life superstar. He was this celebrity, this amazing figure who wanted to give me all these opportunities… and I look back on it now, and it was all manipulation. It was creating a little paramour,” the woman told the outlet. “I think that he planned to have his way with me.”

Once, while traveling with Pavone to Washington D.C. for a convention, the two stayed in separate rooms in a hotel, according to a report the woman later filed with the diocese which was obtained by The Pillar. In the early hours of the morning, Pavone knocked on her door and asked to come in, she alleges. Once inside, Pavone asked her if she would like to “slip into something a little more comfortable.”

“She does not recall much of what happened next or how he eventually left her room,” the woman’s report to the diocese reads, according to The Pillar. “She kept repeating that she was very tired and wanted to go to bed. Eventually he left, and she dismissed it that Father was kind of weird.”

Soon after, the woman says, she reported Pavone’s behavior to Father Peter West, then Priests for Life’s associate director, but no action was taken. West told the Pillar he had no recollection of the conversation.

The woman, who had once planned to enter religious life as a nun, told The Pillar that her spiritual life was irreparably damaged by her experiences with Pavone.

“My relationship with God, that one’s still hard. It was dramatically affected, and has not recovered, and my relationship with the Church was profoundly affected,” she told the outlet.

After making her report to the archdiocese, the woman told the outlet she was never made aware of any details of an investigation. She had only one 20-minute call with Pavone’s bishop, Patrick Zurek.

“I don’t believe that the Diocese of Amarillo’s response was comprehensive or compassionate,” the woman told The Pillar.

And she was not the last woman to allege that Pavone crossed the line.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>(L-R) Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski, Father Tom Euteneuer and Father Frank Pavone in 2005. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">REUTERS</div>

(L-R) Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski, Father Tom Euteneuer and Father Frank Pavone in 2005.

REUTERS

Jenn Morson, a freelance journalist who has written for The Daily Beast, also worked at Priests for Life at around the same time. She said she also experienced Pavone’s boundary-crossing behavior.

Morson worked as an outreach assistant at Priests for Life shortly after graduating from college in 1999.

She was 22-years-old when she first met Pavone, then a towering figure in the anti-abortion movement.

“I did not have the same experience as the other young woman as far as severity,” Morson told The Daily Beast. “But there were definitely red flags, and boundary-crossing.”

Pavone would put his hands on Morson’s shoulders as she worked at the office computer after hours, she says, and often took her out to dinner alone, or invited her into his private living quarters.

At the time, she says, she considered Pavone a trusted father-figure, a priest who was laser-focused on his work in the movement. She explained away his inappropriate behavior as “socially-awkward.”

“It was considered a big honor. Here is this super important person, if you’re from that subculture,” she says, of working at Priests for Life.

Morson, who has herself reported extensively on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, says it took years for her to realize that she too had been groomed by Pavone.

“I’ve listened to women talk about all the stuff that they got confused by, when they were being groomed by their abusers,” she says. “I guess until these women came forward [about Pavone] I never really thought about all of the stuff that made me uncomfortable.”

Morson also says Anthony DeStefano, then Priests for Life’s executive director, acknowledged to her that meetings held in private quarters were inappropriate, but she does not believe any action was taken.

For Morson, the breaking point came on a Sunday evening in 2000, at a diner in Staten Island. Pavone had taken her out to eat, and told her about an exciting new project.

Morson says Pavone told her that he and Greg Cunnginham, an anti-abortion activist and executive director of the Center for BioEthical Reform, had come into possession of explicit footage of illegal abortion procedures filmed in the developing world, in countries where the treatment was illegal. (Cunningham’s group is known for displaying large, graphic posters of abortion procedures and fetal remains at college campuses and shopping malls.)

Pavone was thrilled, Morson says, at how graphic the videos were. When Morson asked how the videos had been made, she says Pavone told her a videographer had been paid to film covertly.

“The more that this conversation went, he was genuinely shocked that I was not excited about this,” Morson says. She was shocked that, as a so-called “pro-lifer,” Pavone didn’t see the hypocrisy in filming women who were undergoing illegal procedures that could potentially be life-threatening.

“They paid people to be there but not offer help to people whose lives were in danger,” Morson says. “I was really uncomfortable.”

That week, Morson resigned her post. She never heard from Frank Pavone again, she says.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Father Frank Pavone (L) and Reverend Patrick Mahoney pray at the steps of the Supreme Court in 2014 as arguments begin to challenge the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide coverage for contraception.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Reuters</div>

Father Frank Pavone (L) and Reverend Patrick Mahoney pray at the steps of the Supreme Court in 2014 as arguments begin to challenge the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide coverage for contraception.

Reuters

Priests for Life did not respond to questions about these videos, or how they were obtained.

Cunningham told The Daily Beast that his organization obtains footage of abortions from “whistleblowers” whose identities are protected by non-disclosure agreements.

Cunningham said he still supports Pavone, who has served on the board of Center For Bio-Ethical Reform for more than 25 years.

“I continue to urge him to go to court and file complaints for defamation,” Cunningham told The Daily Beast via email. “It is troubling to me that Fr. Pavone’s accusers waited for years to come forward and then offered nothing more than vague, ambiguous allegations.”

One of those who has come forward is Mary Worthington.

In 2004, she was a recent college graduate, had just started working at the organization as an intern, she told The Pillar.

“[Pavone] started on the flirty-flirty touching, paying way too much attention to me, touching my hair, or stroking my back,” Worthington told the outlet. “He would just walk up to me in the office, and keep his hand on my arm, stroke my hair at my desk, or put his hand on the small of my back, where it was also halfway on my bottom.”

Worthington says the workplace environment at Priests for Life was inappropriate, and she was frequently asked to do things that felt uncomfortable, like filing documents in Pavone’s bedroom. When she drove Pavone to the airport, he would touch her legs. He nicknamed her his ‘‘favorite college student,” she says.

She described the harassment as “constant,” saying it made her “dread” to go to work.

“I always just sat there cringing, thinking ‘Don’t touch me. Just please don’t touch me,’” Worthington told The Pillar.

Finally, after an incident in which Pavone backed her up against the wall, stroking her hair and shoulder, Worthington says, she quit.

Worthington says she then confided in her father, who called Angelo DeStefano, Priests for Life’s executive director, to complain.

“DeStefano told my dad that I didn’t understand, and that [Pavone] was just very affectionate,” Worthington told The Pillar.

A history of scandal

For more than two decades, Pavone has been a star of the anti-abortion world, traveling the country as a “pro-life” celebrity and inserting himself into the movement’s causes célèbres.

In 1988, aged 29, when Pavone was ordained as a priest he was already a dedicated anti-abortion activist who attended the March for Life in Washington D.C. every year. He has described his dedication to the anti-abortion movement as a “vocation within a vocation.” By 1993, Pavone had left parish ministry to devote himself to running Priests for Life.

Pavone’s political outspokenness has long put him at odds with the Catholic Church. Canon law states that priests “are not to have an active part in political parties,” a restriction that Pavone has constantly chafed at.

In the early 2000s, Pavone became involved in the Terri Schiavo case, delivering the homily at her funeral mass. He was also close to Norma McCorvey, the real name of “Jane Roe,” the lead plaintiff in the original Roe v. Wade Supreme Court that legalized abortion.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Father Frank Pavone gives the Homily at Terri Schiavo’s funeral in Gulfport, Florida April 5, 2005. Schiavo died after the brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube was removed under a court order granted to her husband Michael Schiavo. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">REUTERS</div>

Father Frank Pavone gives the Homily at Terri Schiavo’s funeral in Gulfport, Florida April 5, 2005. Schiavo died after the brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube was removed under a court order granted to her husband Michael Schiavo.

REUTERS

Later in her life, McCorvey said she had come to regret her involvement in the case, converting to Catholicism and becoming involved in the anti-abortion movement. For a time, Pavone was her spiritual adviser. (Shortly before her death, McCorvey appeared to change tack again, saying she had been paid to speak out by the anti-abortion movement, and that she still supported the right to choose an abortion.)

Pavone’s personal and political power peaked when he became part of an inner circle of Catholic advisers to Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Pavone was the co-chair of Trump’s pro-life coalition that year, and a member of the “Catholics for Trump” advisory board.

The day before the 2016 election, Pavone appeared in a Facebook video holding what he claimed were the remains of an aborted fetus, which he laid on an altar table while encouraging viewers to vote for Donald Trump.

“I am showing him to you because in this election we have to decide if we will allow this child killing to continue in America or not,” Pavone said in the video (which has now been deleted) according to Salon. “Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform says yes, let the child killing continue —and you pay for it. Donald Trump and the Republican platform says no; the child should be protected.”

The gruesome stunt was condemned by Catholic officials and others in the anti-abortion movement.

“A human being has been sacrificed and the altar of God has been desecrated, all for politics,” Ed Mechmann, of Archdiocese of New York wrote in a blog post at the time.

The Diocese of Amarillo in Texas, where Pavone was incardinated, opened an investigation into Pavone.

“We believe that no one who is pro-life can exploit a human body for any reason, especially the body of a fetus,” the Diocese wrote in a statement.

Pavone later issued an apology, claiming the table was not a consecrated altar and therefore not a “sacred space.”

The following year, Bishop Zurek wrote a letter to Pavone recommending that Pavone be defrocked and removed as a priest “because of your scandalous behavior, your involvement in partisan politics, your persistent disobedience, your lack of respect for legitimate ecclesiastical authority.”

Pavone remained unrepentant about his political activities.

“It’s like, ‘Hey the house is on fire!’ I’m not going to ask anybody’s permission to go scream that the house is on fire,” the priest told the Catholic News Agency.

And he did not stop preaching on behalf of Trump and the Republican Party, or raising money for the anti-abortion movement. By 2018, Priests for Life was bringing in $10.5 million a year, according to tax documents viewed by The Daily Beast.

When Donald Trump set up his reelection campaign in 2020, Pavone was promoted to co-chair of the Pro-Life Voices for the Trump campaign and a member of the Catholics for Trump advisory board. That July, however, Pavone was forced to resign from his roles in the Trump campaign at the direction of Church authorities.

In February of last year, Pavone gave mass at the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) conference in Orlando, walking on stage in a red MAGA baseball cap. He asked that God send the Holy Spirit to help attendees “drive out a bad political party” and “continue the work of making America great again.”

Finally, in December 2022, the Vatican announced it had defrocked Pavone for “blasphemous communications on social media” as well as “persistent disobedience” of his bishop.

In a lengthy screed published on his website, Pavone said he was the victim of “cancel culture” in the Catholic Church.

Despite uproar in the Catholic press about the latest sexual misconduct allegations against Pavone, he has maintained a steady stream of social media output. On February 23, Pavone shared a picture of himself with Kari Lake, a far-right Trump-backed Republican who lost the Arizona governor’s race last year.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for Priests for Life suggested the women speaking out about Pavone might be part of an attempt to undermine his political work.

“The allegations and vitriol are truly unfortunate, and the timing seems perhaps designed in some way to dismantle the incredible progress we have made to protect the gift of life,” Pavone’s organization told The Daily Beast. “We are keeping focus on our essential mission.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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