The True Story: ‘Catch Me If You Can’

By Father Jerry Pokorsky | October 9, 2018 | 10:10am EDT
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Abagnale Jr. in the film "Catch Me If You Can" (left) and real life Frank Abagnale (right) (Screenshots)

Frank grew up in Westchester, New York.  He attended Catholic schools run by the Christian Brothers.  He is one of four children. At Age 16, the school’s priest chaplain without explanation dismissed Frank from class and directed him to a car that delivered him to the steps of the county courthouse.  After he was ushered into the courtroom, he learned for the first time that his parents were divorcing. 

The judge informed the 16-year-old that the choice to live with his mother or father was his to make.  Frank didn’t answer. He cried out in horror and ran out of the courtroom.  It would be years before he’d see his mother, but he would never see his father again.

Taking to the streets of New York, Frank found a part-time job.  But his pay wasn’t enough to cover the bills.  At six feet, with even a few gray hairs to his credit, Frank looked older than his tender years. So he tinkered with his ID, changing the 1 in “16” to 2, and he instantly became 26 years old and secured a higher paying job.  But he still could not make ends meet.

He had a knack for charming the bank clerks and successfully wrote bad checks when his money ran out.  He knew it wouldn’t take long for the police to come for him.  So when he happened upon an Eastern Airline flight crew gathered outside of a hotel, he came up with a crazy plan.  He would pose as a Pan Am airline pilot and travel the world.

His call to the Pan Am corporate purchasing department worked.  Pretending to be a pilot, he reported that the dry cleaners lost his Pan Am uniform.  Receiving directions for the fitting and purchase, he was told he could only pay by payroll deduction.  Perfect. He wouldn’t even need to write a bad check.

Airline pilots, like many professionals, stick together at the airport cafes.  In conversation with them, Frank found it surprisingly easy to pick up the vocabulary of pilots.  But he still needed an airline ID card to travel without charge, as was customary, on the deadhead flights of the family of airlines.

Pretending to be a purchasing agent, Frank convinced an ID card business establishment to provide a laminated Pan Am card – with his photo – to present as a sample to his illusory company.  With his fraudulent ID and Pan Am uniform, Frank logged over a million miles on 260 flights including 26 countries. He forged checks with increasing proficiency and never lacked spending cash.

When he was 21 years old, the French police arrested him for forgery. The French prison cell was harsh, with only a blanket on the concrete floor and no plumbing.  The records indicate he was 198 lbs. when he went to prison, and 109 lbs. when he was released. Frank was then imprisoned in Sweden and finally in the U.S., where authorities sentenced him to 12 years for fraud.  He served four years in the federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Virginia before the FBI came up with their own crazy idea for him.

Sometimes it takes a criminal to pursue a criminal. Frank was 26 years old when he was conditionally released from prison to assist the FBI in prosecuting bank fraud.  After satisfying the release agreement, he worked for the FBI for 41 years.

Frank was content to live out his life in obscurity. But Steven Spielberg, impressed by his truly amazing story of redemption, produced the movie “Catch Me if You Can,” a huge box office success, earning more than a billion dollars.  In the popular mind, Frank Abagnale was thought to be a kind of hero, a true genius.  

But Frank broke the law as a child, on the run simply to survive.  He knew one day he’d pay the price.  What he did was immoral, illegal, unethical, and he will carry as a burden his brief life of crime for the rest of his life.  Frank turned down three offers of presidential pardons because he would not allow a piece of paper to excuse his true crimes.  Only good actions could begin to repair the damage he caused.

A judge, a complete stranger, asked the 16-year-old Frank to choose one parent over the other.  It was a choice he couldn’t make.  So, he ran away.  His life was not at all glamorous.  He cried himself to sleep until he was 19 years old.  He spent Christmas and holidays alone.  Pretending to be ten years older, he had no peers, no proms to attend, and there were no football games to enjoy with friends.

Frank tells those who listen that every child has a father. But very few men are worthy to be called “daddy” by their child.

He had a daddy.  His father saw him to bed every night and told him he loved him.  When Frank was 16, he was just a child – just as all 16-year-olds.  And like all children, he needed a mother and father.

Frank still awakens in the middle of the night with disturbing memories.  In prison one undergoes things one never forgets.  During his imprisonment, he received word that his otherwise physically fit dad stumbled and fell, hitting his head, and died.  So the last time he saw his dad was in the divorce courtroom.

Frank was not born again, he didn’t see the light, nor was he rehabilitated in prison.  God gave him a wife and three children – a family.  It was the love of a woman, his wife that changed his life.

So, today, Frank challenges men to be true men.  Manhood has nothing to do with money, professional skills, accomplishments, or degrees.  “A real man loves his wife. A real man is faithful to his wife. A real man puts his wife and children next to God and country as the most important thing in his life.”

Hence, the true message of “Catch Me If You Can” is the ageless wisdom of faithfulness.  “What God has joined, let no man put asunder.”  (Mark 10:9)

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.


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