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Op-Ed: Are Project Veritas, Priests For Life In Turmoil?

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Two organizations known for their political conservatism and activism are apparently experiencing a degree of turmoil: Project Veritas and Priests for Life. File photo: R.classen, Shutter Stock, licensed.

LAKE GENEVA, WI –  Two organizations known for their political conservatism and activism are apparently experiencing a degree of turmoil: Project Veritas and Priests for Life.

The board of Project Veritas is reportedly considering ousting the organization’s founder and chairman, James O’Keefe, from his leadership position.

“O’Keefe is his organization’s guiding ideological force and onscreen face, but his status as its day-to-day manager has become uncertain amid reports of internal turmoil, lawsuits from former employees, leaks about its internal workings, and a federal investigation into its conduct in purchasing a diary stolen from Ashley Biden, the president’s daughter,” according to a Feb. 8 story from New York Magazine.  

Citing an anonymous source, the magazine reports “that Project Veritas was currently divided between a group of employees who are perceived to be loyal to O’Keefe, including his communications adviser, R.C. Maxwell, and the board, which has been dissatisfied with what it perceives as O’Keefe’s mismanagement.”

The magazine also reports: “According to a letter dated February 6, which was circulated by Project Veritas staff who were critical of O’Keefe’s management, he ‘berated’ and fired the organization’s CFO, Tom O’Hara, and its chief strategy officer, Barry Hinckley. Hinckley later wrote a message to the staff saying he had ‘stood up to a bully’ and had lost his job as a result. The letter included an 11-page list of testimonials from anonymous current employees, describing O’Keefe, in the words of one, as a ‘power drunk tyrant.’”

Still, prominent conservatives have been supporting O’Keefe on social media, according to a Feb. 9 story from LifeSiteNews.

O’Keefe has not responded to my email request for comment.

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Priests for Life has had to deal with the laicization of its national director, Frank Pavone, as well as recently publicized reports of sexual harassment allegations that were made against Pavone in past years. The Catholic news outlets The Pillar, Catholic News Agency, the National Catholic Register, and Church Militant have reported on the harassment allegations. (As of this writing, LifeSiteNews, LifeNews and the National Catholic Reporter have not reported on them.)

The latest development regarding Pavone:

“Two former officials of Priests for Life are calling for laicized priest Frank Pavone to step down as national director of the pro-life organization to allow for an independent investigation of his conduct,” according to a Feb. 10 story from CNA.  

“In a joint statement released Friday, Andrew Smith, a former employee and board member of Priests for Life, and Father Stephen Imbarrato, who served as a member of the organization’s pastoral team, said they have been dismayed by Pavone’s defiant response to being dismissed from the priesthood, as well as allegations first published by the Catholic news outlet The Pillar that he sexually harassed women who worked for Priests for Life.”

Regarding the harassment allegations, Pavone issued the following statement to CNA:

“I am enormously saddened by recent efforts of some to revisit old accusations that contain numerous inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and mistruths, that have already been addressed. Over a decade ago, my bishop at that time thoroughly investigated these claims and confirmed that I was in good standing and fully suitable for ministry.

“Throughout the past 34 years of my service, it has always been my intent to treat every person with respect, integrity, and professionalism. Of course, I’m sure there have been times in my life where I’ve somehow missed the mark and unintentionally made someone feel uncomfortable. I’m sorry to anyone who might have ever taken offense in such moments, and I have always faithfully served the priesthood.

“I remain focused on the enormously vital work of Priests for Life. As always, we remain steadfast in our mission to expand and protect the sanctity and gift of life. We are saving lives and making significant gains in our unstoppable efforts to make abortion unthinkable.”

The recent news has elicited a divided response from pro-life commentators and activists.

“In all my 30 years of friendship with [Frank] Pavone, I have never witnessed anything inappropriate,” wrote Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in an email to me.

“I have been with [Frank] very early in the morning and his first thoughts are attending to the needs of the innocent children. I have been with him very late into the evening and all he is interested in talking about is ending abortion. The [Frank] I know is a tireless and fierce warrior with endless energy and singularly focused on the mission. I know most of his staff, and I am very good friends with many of them over several decades.

“These false accusations levied at [Frank] are suspiciously similar to the way the Democrats take down political enemies. We look back in history and see the cancel culture attack Clarence Thomas, Judge Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and a host of other people. It’s alarming to think that people on our side of the aisle would stoop to the same level. All I see are disgruntled employees and power-hungry persons wanting to supplant [Frank] and take his position for their own gain.”

In sharp contrast, Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, is very troubled by the allegations, telling The Pillar (in part):

“I have been trying without success to get straight answers from Frank. He really needs to make a public statement about this and come clean about what did or did not happen, and what steps have been taken to truly resolve this scandal.

“Priests for Life runs what they call the world’s largest post-abortion ministry. How can women trust Priests for Life when these allegations are hanging in the air like this? American women need to know that the pro-life movement stands with them. We stand with them when they’re facing an untimely pregnancy. We stand with them when they’re abandoned by their husbands and boyfriends for refusing to get abortions. We stand with them when they’re struggling with the aftermath of abortion. And we stand with them when they are victims of sexual assault. We’re still looking for answers, but many of us are asking ourselves really tough questions about working with Frank Pavone and Priests for Life in the future.”

In addition, on his Facebook page, Scheidler commented: “[The accuser’s account] sadly looks like the truth. I happen to have worked with the woman who was interviewed in this article (which I did not know when I gave my own interview). We worked on the contraception issue back in 2005-6. Simply put, I believe her.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for the Pro-Life Action League from August 2001 to May 2002.)

Pro-life activist Mark Houck wrote in an email to me: “I have known [Frank] Pavone for many years. I admire his work, his leadership, and his ministry. I wholeheartedly support him and pray for him.”

Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas, has not responded to my email request for comment on the controversy.

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