In the latest clash between the Catholic hierarchy and one of the church's leading anti-abortion crusaders, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan accused Fr. Frank Pavone of continuing to stonewall on financial reforms, and Dolan said he is cutting ties with his group, Priests for Life.
In a Nov. 20 letter to other U.S. bishops, Dolan said he did not know if the Vatican would now step in to take action against the New York-based priest, who for years has angered various bishops by rejecting oversight of the organization by church authorities and for refusing to sort out his group's troubled finances.
"My requests of Father Pavone were clear and simple: one, that Priests for Life undergo a forensic audit; two, that a new, independent board be established to provide oversight and accountability," Dolan wrote in the letter, which was first reported by Catholic World News.
"Although Father Pavone initially assured me of his support, he did not cooperate. Frequent requests that he do so went unheeded. I finally asked him to comply by October 1st. He did not," Dolan wrote.
Dolan, who had been asked by the Vatican to help Pavone restructure Priests for Life, said in the letter that he has informed Rome that "I am unable to fulfill their mandate, and want nothing further to do with the organization."
The cardinal said he had "no idea" what the Vatican intends to do now.
In a statement emailed to Religion News Service on Monday, the Staten Island-based Priests for Life rebuffed Dolan's criticisms, contending that the group has had "clean" audits for 15 years and saying the dispute is, in fact, "about control."
Priests for Life is "working with the Vatican to fully implement all the Church's expectations," the group said, adding that the Vatican "has been consistently supportive and favorable towards Priests for Life."
The statement said the Vatican and Pavone agree that "it does not serve the needs of the Church or the cause of life to argue a matter in public that is still being worked out in private," and said it would not be "appropriate" to comment further.
Despite Pavone's ties to influential church conservatives and his long-standing promotion of a cause that has topped the church's agenda, there are signs that Pavone could be wearing out his welcome.
For decades, the outspoken Pavone has often clashed as much with his own bishops as he has with abortion-rights foes.
Pavone had tense relations with Dolan's two immediate predecessors, the late Cardinal John O'Connor and retired Cardinal Edward Egan, and in 2005 he moved to the diocese of Amarillo, Texas, where the bishop there promised him greater freedom. But Pavone's grand plans to build a $130 million seminary there went south; when a new bishop, Patrick Zurek, was installed in Amarillo in 2008, he demanded a full accounting of Pavone's $10 million annual budget, one of the largest among anti-abortion groups in the U.S.
In 2011, Zurek denounced Pavone's "incorrigible defiance of my legitimate authority as his bishop" and suspended his ministry. It then emerged that Priests for Life had been badly mismanaged, running an unsustainable $1.4 million deficit and failing to make key tax filings or allow proper financial oversight and safeguards.
Pavone moved back to New York, saying he had the Vatican's support and that he would not be cowed by any bishop. Then earlier this year, he and Zurek said they reached a settlement in their standoff and the problems seemed on their way to a resolution.
But that apparently wasn't the case, and Pavone's fate now seems to rest with Rome.