NEW YORK (NY)
America [New York NY]
February 23, 2023
By Jenn Morson
I have interviewed dozens of clergy abuse victims. And as they lay out the grooming behaviors of their abusers, a clear pattern has always been evident. Yet until recently, when I read the testimony, published in The Pillar, of a woman who was groomed by Frank Pavone over 20 years ago, I never realized that I had also experienced some of the same boundary violations by his hand. Recently, another woman has come forward with similar allegations. My story is not the same as the other brave women who have stepped forward and shared that they were sexually harassed by Mr. Pavone, a former priest who was laicized by the Vatican in December 2022 for “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience” of his bishop.
But in hindsight, I see that I experienced grooming and inappropriate behavior that I now wish someone had spoken out against.
I was a 22-year-old college student the first time I met Frank Pavone. A friend’s sister was working for his organization, Priests for Life, and when we flew to Houston for the Human Life International Conference in 1998, we spent our time with her, excited to see what working full time for the pro-life movement might be like. All of us were passionate and ready to make a difference in the world.
Mr. Pavone paid attention to us. He sat and listened to our ideas, and he made us feel like we had so much to offer the movement. Most of us had grown up in activist families and wanted to dedicate our lives to the cause. That Saturday, we were invited to spend hours in the hotel bar sitting across from Norma McCorvey and her former partner, Connie Gonzalez. Miss Norma, as we were instructed to call her, had entered the Catholic Church just weeks before. There was a lot of alcohol and many cigarettes.
In hindsight, I see that I experienced grooming and inappropriate behavior that I now wish someone had spoken out against.
For the next year, Mr. Pavone kept in touch via email, asking for my advice, and I relished the attention. He was a rock star in the pro-life movement, and for some reason, he valued my insights and ideas. I felt honored and appreciated.
Periodically, Mr. Pavone would try to persuade me to move to Staten Island from Northern Virginia to work for him, but I shied away from such a big move. That summer after graduation, he convinced me to come up for two weeks as an intern. I shared an efficiency apartment leased by Priests for Life across the street from the office building. I lived with another similarly aged intern, and we spent long hours in the office alongside Mr. Pavone and the other workers, and sometimes just Mr. Pavone after the others had gone home.
When Mr. Pavone put his hands on my shoulders as I worked on the computer—both after hours and in front of others—I felt awkward and uncomfortable but quickly squashed down any reaction because he was a priest, a father figure. Surely it was just a lack of social skills and nothing more nefarious. I ignored my gut reactions because none of my coworkers who were present seemed to find it odd or inappropriate.
Mr. Pavone took us out for dinner often, and at the time I thought nothing of it because to my young mind, priests were different from other men. While I would have never gone to dinner alone with a 40-year-old single man, somehow I was O.K. with this.
It was at one such dinner that Mr. Pavone attempted to persuade me and the other intern to come work full-time for Priests for Life. He told us there were only two requirements: liking roller coasters and seafood. I said that roller coasters made me sick, the other intern lamented that she was allergic to seafood, and Mr. Pavone chuckled and told us that together he guessed it was acceptable. We accepted the jobs.
This lack of accountability can, and did, help to create the sort of atmosphere where abuse thrives.
It never occurred to me that it was odd that I had been hired for a job without ever submitting a resume, without meeting with any other members of the organization or without having any specific job skills that would lend themselves to the position.
[Editor’s note: America reached out to Priests for Life, but the organization did not respond to the specifics of Ms. Morson’s allegations. Leslie Palma, the director of communications of Priests for Life, sent a statement from Frank Pavone, which read in part: “I have been incredibly saddened by recent efforts to reimagine old stories, or even moments from more than twenty years ago, that contain numerous inaccuracies, misrepresentations and mistruths. Throughout the past 34 years of my service, it has always been my intent to treat every person with respect, integrity, and professionalism.”]
These practices are not necessarily signs of abuse, but together they are signs of an organization that ran on Mr. Pavone’s authority alone, rather than one that had a structure to which he and others were jointly accountable. This lack of accountability can, and did, help to create the sort of atmosphere where abuse thrives.
Mr. Pavone gave me the title of outreach assistant, and I was permitted to work remotely so long as I periodically traveled to Staten Island for a week or so of in-office work. When Mr. Pavone traveled to Washington, D.C., I was his chauffeur and secretary. This was before smartphones, so I had to print out MapQuest directions, leave extra early and pray that I wouldn’t get lost in the city as Mr. Pavone had no patience for such errors. He felt they cost time he didn’t have and therefore cost lives. It was that simple. In addition, if I missed his call to my work-issued cell phone, no matter if I was merely in the restroom or didn’t get the call within four rings, a lecture on being available was inevitable.
Through these types of requests, Mr. Pavone tacitly conveyed that he was not a man with whom one could disagree or set boundaries without retaliation. It is yet another example of creating an environment in which it is difficult to speak up when a situation feels uncomfortable or a boundary is being crossed.
Mr. Pavone frequently blurred those boundaries. Whether he stayed at monasteries or hotels, Mr. Pavone always invited me into his living space. And the same was true when I was working in the Staten Island office. Many times, he would summon me to his efficiency apartment in the same building as the aforementioned intern apartment, and I would feel extremely uncomfortable being alone with him in a priest’s living quarters. (Anthony DeStefano, then-executive director, once acknowledged to me that private meetings in private quarters were inappropriate, but to my knowledge, nothing was done about it.) It was in that apartment that six months after my internship, Mr. Pavone offered me a promotion to outreach coordinator.
Mr. Pavone tacitly conveyed that he was not a man with whom one could disagree or set boundaries without retaliation.
Initially, I accepted. However, the first project he wanted me to work on involved hi-resolution images and videos of abortions from developing nations where the procedure was illegal. That those capturing the images didn’t offer assistance to these vulnerable women felt wrong to me, and I feared that publicizing the images could put the women at greater risk. Looking back now, I can see this as further evidence of the ways in which Mr. Pavone too often viewed women as something that existed merely to serve a purpose, whether it was the pro-life cause or his own personal predilections.
That was my last week working for Priests for Life. I resigned and never again heard from Frank Pavone.
Initially after leaving Priests for Life, I stayed silent about my experiences and the reasons why I had left. I felt if I shared what had happened, that I would be undercutting the good I still believed they did. When people I knew started to become skeptical of his methods of activism, they also started to speculate that perhaps Mr. Pavone had dark secrets in his closet. I defended him as a man who worked harder than anyone I knew. Even though I grew further and further away from him ideologically the older I became, I believed him to be pure of heart.
When he was laicized just months ago, people asked me if I thought he was capable of sexual harassment, and I sincerely doubted it. In my initial recollection, Mr. Pavone was merely single-minded, and it led to poor decisions on his part. I had completely minimized my own experiences like so many others who have been subjected to controlling superiors, and the fact that no one else had ever questioned his personal interactions only served to help bury my gut reactions.
Since reading The Pillar’s article, I have seen many of my own experiences described and named as inappropriate. I have also learned that another priest who worked at Priests for Life, the Rev. Stephen Imbarrato, has offered testimony that Mr. Pavone sexually harassed another young, female employee. Imbarrato seems satisfied with the fact that he instituted a sexual harassment policy before resigning himself, but his mention of additional cases of sexual harassment is chilling. When he departed Priests for Life in 2018, he should have known that Mr. Pavone would more than likely continue to harass young women but seems to have done nothing further outside the organization to prevent that outcome. The policy he instituted is a necessary start, but its mere existence in an organization that lacks any culture or structure for holding its leader accountable cannot protect any of its employees from harassment.
The work culture of Priests for Life provided ample opportunity for Mr. Pavone to harm these young, vulnerable women.
What I experienced pales in comparison to what other young women say they endured at Mr. Pavone’s hand. But what makes grooming particularly insidious is how easily it allows a person to be manipulated. That I experienced many of the same inappropriate behaviors and yet continued to defend Mr. Pavone against such speculations sends chills down my spine. Why did no one else intervene? Others stood by and made excuses for Mr. Pavone’s behavior “for the greater good.”
When a person experiences “red flag”-type behavior from a much-admired individual, it is almost as if a short circuit has occurred. You begin to doubt your perceptions, fighting your gut reaction and instinct because you think surely you must have misunderstood. You as the “nobody” must be simply mistaken; the aggressor is just “passionate,” or maybe it’s a cultural divide. In Mr. Pavone’s case, I told myself he was just from a different generation, he was just a priest who didn’t understand personal space, he was just so dedicated to his work that he couldn’t help but get mad. And when no one else dares say anything or question the behavior you witness, this makes it even easier to bury your own hunches.
I was young. I was sheltered. I know that I am not at fault for staying quiet when all of the older, more experienced persons around me ignored Mr. Pavone’s behavior. But I wonder now how many older or more experienced leaders in the movement could see his actions more clearly, yet whose singular focus on ending abortion gave them an excuse to tolerate any and all of Mr. Pavone’s outrageous behaviors.
The work culture of Priests for Life provided ample opportunity for Mr. Pavone to harm these young, vulnerable women who were dedicated to the justice of the pro-life cause. I can’t help but think of the women whose abortions were filmed without their knowledge and consent, whose safety was not a priority for Mr. Pavone, either. We were all a means to an end. And tragically, it seems that a just cause was allowed to absolve anyone of concern for injustice done to us.