ALBANY — As Gov. David A. Paterson found himself confronting the first crisis of his day-old administration on Tuesday morning, it was left to Charles J. O’Byrne, his trusted second in command, to contain the damage. It was an unenviable task: prepping the governor and his wife for uncomfortable questions that reporters would soon ask the couple about their extramarital affairs.
It was hardly a job that Mr. O’Byrne, a former Jesuit priest, a Kennedy family confidant and a onetime speechwriter for Howard Dean, could have imagined 10 days before, when he was laboring in obscurity as the top assistant to the lieutenant governor, a job far down in the capital’s pecking order.Mr. O’Byrne has spent the last three and a half years directing Mr. Paterson’s career with the assurance of an aggressive strategist readying himself and his boss for more prominent roles in government. His skills have surely been tested: He had five days to oversee a transition after Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his resignation, and now he must help negotiate a budget by the end of the month. The partnership is an unconventional one. Mr. Paterson is the casual and convivial heir to a Harlem political legacy, and Mr. O’Byrne is the no-nonsense and at times abrasive Irish Catholic from the Jersey Shore. Friends and colleagues say the contrast in styles is exactly what makes Mr. Paterson and Mr. O’Byrne mesh so well. “David, to a certain extent, needs a tough guy,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democratic state senator who represents parts of Upper Manhattan. “Charles has helped channel his skills in a very productive way. They fit very well together, and it’s not something that you’d have predicted initially.” Even before he arrived in Albany, Mr. O’Byrne showed that he had few reservations about butting heads with powerful institutions. In 2002, the year he left the Jesuit order, he wrote an article in Playboy in which he described what he saw as hypocrisy and sexual dysfunction in the Roman Catholic Church. In the article,
he described the prevalence of what he called “boyologist” priests, ones who seemed, in his opinion, to take an unnatural interest in their young male charges. “I became aware that there was sex all around me — including relationships between Jesuits,”he wrote. “I came to believe that living with such contradictions was at the core of our training.” In other newspaper articles, he has been quoted as estimating that 70 percent of the priests in his peer group were gay. Mr. O’Byrne is openly gay himself. Whether his comments about the church will become an issue for the Paterson administration is, of course, an open question.
Catholics, the largest religious denomination in New York, make up 39 percent of the state’s population. “Certainly it’d be in the best interest of the governor to have a good relationship with us,” said Dennis Poust,the communications director for the Catholic Conference, the church’s official public policy arm in the state. He added that the conference was willing to look past Mr. O’Byrne’s past comments in order to have a productive relationship with the new governor. “We’d be looking to go into this relationship with a clean slate. And I hope that he’s willing to do that.” Mr. O’Byrne would not comment for this article. To this day, his 2002 article still stirs up resentment among Jesuits.
A member of the order who knew him when he was a member said Mr. O’Byrne clashed often with his peers. The Playboy article, (Disturbing) he said, “got very poor reviews even from people who are fond of Charles.”But the Jesuit priest, who asked for anonymity since he did not want to speak publicly of a former colleague, also said that Mr. O’Byrne was “very committed to various social justice issues” and that “he had a desire to be part of the progressive arm of the church and its allegiance to the poor.” Mr. O’Byrne, who now has the title of secretary to the governor, started his career in New York politics as a policy and communications aide to Mr. Paterson in 2004, and has demonstrated a willingness to spar, several associates said in interviews. “Charles is an extraordinarily bright guy. He is a different breed of the kind of guy you usually see mucking around in politics,” said
one Democratic associate who has worked closely with Mr. O’Byrne in Albany and asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly. “But if he played sports, he’d be accused of unnecessary roughness.”Mr. O’Byrne’s journey from a teenage volunteer on the city council campaign of his high school history teacher in Red Bank, N.J., to right-hand man to the governor of New York has taken many detours as he searched for a role that fit. He graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1984, and practiced law as a corporate litigator for several years at Rosenman & Colin, a New York firm. In 1988, he left to enter the priesthood.
Being a priest, he said in the Playboy article, was his “earliest ambition.” His first stop on the path to ordination was in the Archdiocese of New York, but he was expelled from his seminary program. He said in the Playboy article that the expulsion occurred after he complained about an atmosphere in the seminary that he thought “coddled” bigots.The Archdiocese said it would not comment on individual personnel matters, which it considers private. In 1989, he formally joined the Jesuit order, with which he spent 13 years.
In that time, he was ordained, earned two master’s degrees in theology and assisted at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side.It was during those years that the Kennedy family came to rely on him during some of their darkest moments. He had been friends since law school with Stephen Smith Jr., the son of Jean Kennedy Smith, John F. Kennedy’s younger sister. He acted as a spiritual adviser to the family during the 1991 rape trial of Mr. Smith’s brother, William Kennedy Smith. In 1996, he officiated at the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. And three years later, he said Mass at the funeral of Mr. Kennedy, who died when his small plane, carrying his wife and his sister-in-law, crashed into the Atlantic. The Kennedys have also come to rely on him for matters other than spiritual guidance. According to Mr. O’Byrne’s statement of financial disclosure for the 2006 calendar year (his most recent), he is a trustee for the Jean K. Smith Trust, the Kennedy Smith Foundation and the Smith Family Trust. He also lists gifts in excess of $1,000 and trustee commissions from members of the Smith family.
Of leaving the Jesuits, “There was nothing sudden or dramatic about my decision,” he wrote. “Instead of a last straw there seemed to be an accumulation of straws.” He is now a practicing Episcopalian.Mr. O’Byrne’s friends described him as someone who was always drawn to progressive politics, and so when he started working for the presidential campaign of Mr. Dean in 2003, it seemed like a good fit. Ethan Geto, who was Mr. Dean’s state campaign manager for New York, recalled that Mr. O’Byrne arrived “very eager to make a new life, extremely eager to make a break with his past.” Mr. O’Byrne proved himself a deft speech writer for Mr. Dean, a skill he carried with him to Albany. When the Dean campaign imploded in early 2004, Mr. O’Byrne found himself looking for steady work. Mr. Geto said he got a call from Mr. Paterson, who was then minority leader of the state Senate and needed someone to help with communication and policy work. “I said, ‘Boy, have I got the right guy for you,’ ” Mr. Geto recalled. Mr. Paterson hired him as a senior policy counsel and speechwriter in August 2004. Those who worked with him said he brought order to Mr. Paterson’s office, which had been known for lacking organizational discipline. Less than a year and a half later in early 2006, Mr. Paterson made Mr. O’Byrne his chief of staff. That he rose so quickly, associates said, was hardly surprising. In 1999, on the day Mr. O’Byrne conducted the funeral service for Mr. Kennedy, Peter Jennings of
ABC News asked Father Vincent O’Keefe, one of Mr. O’Byrne’s Jesuit colleagues, how Mr. O’Byrne was holding up. “He was preoccupied,” Mr. O’Keefe said in the television interview, “but he’s a very active man. He lives on this, and he can keep about 100 balloons in the air at once.”David Gonzalez and Serge F. Kovaleski contributed reporting from New York.
Link to the New York Times article (here)