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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
What Now for ‘Governor’ O’Byrne?
October 22, 2008
Sports Digest by Cathal Dervan
HE is arguably the most powerful Irish American in New York State. Earlier this month, one Democratic strategist said that he was essentially New York’s “governor.” And he has done this all while staying out of the spotlight, despite a controversial and colorful past.
But now, like it or not, Charles O’Byrne is in the spotlight.
Your picture on the front page of the New York Post, next to a gargantuan headline which screams: “HE’S CRAZY.” Yes, that indeed would qualify as the spotlight.
It has been quite an amazing ride for O’Byrne, in some ways fitting for a man who was a Jesuit priest yet also wrote an explosive article on sexuality for Playboy magazine.
O’Byrne left the priesthood for politics, eventually landing a job with David Paterson, who was elected New York State’s lieutenant governor, serving under Eliot Spitzer.
Then, of course, came Spitzer’s inglorious fall from grace. The next thing you knew, Paterson was running New York State and O’Byrne was his most trusted aide.
“More than anyone else, (Governor Paterson) depends on chief of staff Charles O’Byrne,” a long profile of Paterson in New York magazine recently reported.
The article continued, “O’Byrne has a quality Paterson doesn’t — he can tell people no. ‘David needs someone to be his id,’ says one person who worked with them in the Senate, ‘and Charles revels in being his knife.’”
Another Dem-ocratic “party operative” who chose not to be identified had this to say about O’Byrne, “For all intents and purposes, Charles is the governor.”
But last week came the revelation that O’Byrne had not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to the very state he seemed to be governing.
All in all, according to a string of stories which appeared in the New York Post, O’Byrne had not paid $200,000 in taxes to the state as well as the Internal Revenue Service from 2001 to 2005.
As if that were not bad enough, O’Byrne’s explanation was that his personal life was such a mess, in part because of bouts of clinical depression, that he was unable to pay the tax bills.
O’Byrne eventually paid his debt. Still, Republican and Conservative party officials from Manhattan to Buffalo pounced on the O’Byrne story, calling for his resignation.
For now, however, Paterson seems to be standing by O’Byrne.
“The governor considers Charles to be an outstanding public servant and has full confidence in him,” a Paterson spokesperson said this week.
This might all seem like a fairly serious scandal, but for O’Byrne it is just the latest twist in what has been one of the more unorthodox Irish Catholic lives of the past 20 years or so.
O’Byrne grew up in New Jersey, where he attended Catholic schools. He graduated from Columbia University in 1984, then entered the priesthood, becoming a Jesuit.
While at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side he became a friend to the Kennedy family. When John F. Kennedy Junior and Carolyn Bessette were married in 1996, O’Byrne officiated at the ceremony. It was also O’Byrne who presided over Kennedy Junior’s funeral services.
In 2002, O’Byrne wrote a long, personal article in Playboy which slammed many members of the clergy as close-minded bigots.
“Many of my classmates in the New York archdiocesan system were exceptionally narrow-minded, and some were out-and-out bigots who made offensive remarks about Jews and Hispanics, among others, all the while offering pious phrases about Jesus,” O’Byrne wrote. “I protested, but nothing happened.”
O’Byrne also depicted the priesthood in general and the Jesuits in particular as a highly sexualized –- and gay –- sub-culture.
O’Byrne, who himself is gay, also took more than a few swipes at the Irish.
“This belief in sex as sin has been worsened in the American Catholic church, which was shaped by the history of Ireland,” writes O’Byrne. “Sex became the signature taboo of Irish Catholicism . . . When the Irish came to America, their priests imposed a similar model of control on a vast network of parishes and schools. Many veterans of the American Catholic education system had it drilled into their heads that sex was dirty and that sexual sins such as masturbation would send the sinner to hell.”
Even if O’Byrne weather’s this storm, more trouble awaits. Word now is that Rudy Giuliani is being wooed to run against Paterson in 2010.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at
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