Thursday, September 15, 2011

What’s going on in Amarillo?

At least this time there are no accusations of drug abuse or illicit sex. There aren’t even any direct accusations of mishandling funds. What we’ve got here is … oh, you can figure out the rest of the Strother Martin line.

Actually, what we’ve got here is Fr. Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests For Life, butting heads with his Ordinary, the Most Rev. Patrick Zurek of Amarillo. And once again, American Catholics watch from the sidelines as another hero-priest comes under fire, scrabbling for any stray fact no matter how little relevant that can make sense of the matter.

Unlike the Black Sheepdog, we have no allegations of drug-sodden orgies and million-dollar ranches; unlike Alberto Cutié, we have no pictures of Fr. Pavone rolling in the sand with a divorcée. What we do have, according to Bp. Zurek, are “persistent questions and concerns by clergy and laity regarding the transactions of millions of dollars of donations to the PFL from whom the donors have a rightful expectation that the monies are being used prudently.” Ominously, he adds, “At a certain point, for me to hold all this knowledge about the PFL and to turn a blind eye would increase my culpability and quite possibly amount to material cooperation.”

If that’s not an indirect accusation of criminal fraud — or at least malfeasance — I don’t know what is. Yet Bp. Zurek’s letter is irritatingly unspecific; the rest of it simply hovers around the idea that Fr. Pavone has his hands on a boatload of cash, which has enabled him to disobey his bishop.

Running a charitable organization isn’t like running a parish. In an organization like PFL, the National Director doesn’t have unrestricted access to the till, and the CFO has to file a helluva lot more red tape with the state and federal government than does Fr. Joe Schmuckatelli down at Our Lady of Double Entry Accounting.

For his part, Fr. Pavone has protested that PFL’s handling of funds is “above reproach”, and that “Priests for Life has consistently provided every financial document requested by Bishop Zurek, including annual financial audits, quarterly reports, management documents — even entire check registers!” As for his disobedience springing from access to millions of dollars, Fr. Pavone claims in a letter to the USCCB that PFL provides for his residence and the expenses of the ministry, parenthetically noting that the expenses are “very small”. Not only does he deny intransigence towards Bp. Zurek:

I want to make this point quite strenuously: I was not disobedient to any of my previous Ordinaries. It is true that when I was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, I exercised my rights under canon law to seek to leave that Archdiocese and incardinate in a place where I would be allowed to devote all my energies and gifts to the pro-life cause. But while doing that, I was given a parish assignment and I both accepted it and carried it out. I acted at all times in full obedience to my Ordinary.

Now, we could spend time nitpicking the he-said-he-said of this squabble, and indeed Dr. Edward Peters is already providing us with a fine running commentary as befits a great canon lawyer. One comment he makes deserves further attention, in reference to Amarillo Vicar of Clergy Msgr. Harold Waldow:

But then the vicar says: “This [namely, the assets of Priests for Life and its affiliates] is patrimony of the church. It belongs to the church.” Emphasizing the point, Waldow adds: “People give their money over the understanding that it goes to the church or church auspices and programs and ministries.” I believe that these assertions are, in light of the facts available on this matter, quite wrong. …
Assuming I am right on the facts (that PFL is not a juridic person [under canon law]), then referring to the assets of PFL, etc., as if they were Church property to be administered in accord with Church law, is a misrepresentation of canon law, confuses donors as to the actual recipients of their gifts and the lines of accountability flowing therefrom, feeds suspicions that local bishops spend their days looking for apostolates with assets they can raid[!], distracts from the central questions of incardination and clerical obedience raised by this matter, and provides fodder to those who want to characterize the Catholic Church as some megalith run by a cadre of prelates.

It’s hard to reconcile Bp. Zurek’s broad hints of illegalities and culpabilities with Fr. Pavone’s fearfully faithful listing of documentation provided to the Ordinary of Amarillo and boasting of his auditors’ pedigree. One other statement by Msgr. Waldow bothers me:

Zurek requested audits in March for Rachel’s Vineyard, which ministers to people directly affected by abortion, and Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, a lay association for Priests for Life, Pavone said. They are not yet completed.
Two of the major pieces of the international pro-life movement and national pro-life movement are missing,” Waldow said.

Is this an episcopal cash-box raid? Or do we have a bishop working at odds with the Church’s pro-life stance, looking to impose “death by a thousand cuts” by impugning Fr. Pavone’s integrity? Certainly PFL isn’t the sum or the sole engine of the pro-life movement!

In all fairness, Fr. Pavone and PFL should consider opening their books to Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, although I’m not convinced their methods of analysis are appropriate to such an organization. Good stewardship, I’m sorry to say, is no longer enough; even private entities must not only be transparent but be publicly seen as transparent, must broadcast their transparency to all corners of the land.

Nevertheless, it’s up to Bp. Zurek to do more than hint that PFL’s finances have been mishandled. Based on what he and his Vicar for Priests have said so far, I doubt anything more substantive than hints is coming.

Hang on to your vomit bags, kiddies … this is gonna get ugly.