Charles J. O'Byrne (born 1959) is an American lawyer and political staffer who is second in command to Governor of New York David Paterson, serving as Secretary to the Governor. The post is considered the most powerful in Albany after the Governor himself. He is openly gay.
O'Byrne previously served as a staff member to Paterson during his time as Lieutenant Governor of New York as well as in the New York State Senate. He also worked as a speech writer for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. Prior to entering politics, O'Byrne left a promising career as an attorney to join the Catholic priesthood, and was a member of the Society of Jesus for twelve years. He had long talked about authoring a controversial, but never published "kiss and tell", entitled Going My Way, about sex in the Catholic Church. A teaser was published in Playboy magazine in 2002. He is now a practicing Episcopalian. O'Byrne is an active athlete having completed two New York City Marathons and in June 2007 completed his first triathlon.
Early career and background
O'Byrne was born into an Irish Catholic family at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. His father was a teacher and then principal in New York public schools, and his mother was a psychologist. The family lived in Manhattan and Staten Island for five years, and relocated to Oceanport, New Jersey along the Jersey Shore. He attended Red Bank Catholic High School and graduated in 1977.
He attended Columbia University and graduated summa cum laude in 1981, majoring in history with a concentration in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. O'Byrne was a member of the crew team for three years and received the Class Day Achievement Prize at graduation. He was also a member of the Fraternity of Delta Psi and the Co-Founder of the Thomas Merton Lecture at Columbia. He went on to Columbia Law School, graduating with a J.D. in 1984. At Columbia, he became close friends with Stephen Smith Jr., a member of the Kennedy family O'Byrne remained active in alumni affairs, becoming President of the Columbia Alumni Association in 2002, and writing for the Columbia Spectator. During college, he took a summer job in the New Jersey Attorney General's office, and at 22, became acting superintendent of elections and acting commissioner of registration in Monmouth County.
After law school, he worked as a corporate litigator at the Manhattan office of Rosenman & Colin LLP, before leaving to study for the priesthood. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1989, and professed his vows as a Jesuit at the LeMoyne College Chapel in Syracuse, New York in 1991. He earned two masters degrees, a M.Div. with Distinction and a S.T.L. from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1996.
A friend to the Kennedy family, he acted as a spiritual adviser to the family during the 1991 rape trial of Stephen Smith's brother, William Kennedy Smith and officiated at the marriage of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1996. In 1999, he presided over their funeral in New York City after they died in a plane crash. The Kennedys have also come to rely on him for matters other than spiritual guidance. He is a trustee of the Jean K. Smith Trust, the Kennedy Smith Foundation and the Smith Family Trust, and in a 2006 financial disclosure lists gifts in excess of $1,000 and trustee commissions from members of the Smith family.
O'Byrne left corporate law for a vocation to the priesthood in 1989, and attended Saint John Neumann Residence and Hall, a preparatory school for seminarians under the Archdiocese of New York. School officials, wary perhaps, in O'Byrne's words, of his Ivy League pedigree, sent him to teach for a year in the South Bronx:
During my training I taught at a Catholic girls' high school in the South Bronx," he wrote. "My students were streetwise. They were heroes to me, trying to make something of their lives against unbelievable odds. Most of them were sexually active, by their own accounts. At that time, the rate of HIV infection among babies born at Lincoln Hospital, a stone’s throw from the school, was increasing rapidly. I chose to do for my students what the nuns in my school had done for me. I told them that if they were going to have sex, to make sure they did it safely.
– Charles J. O'Byrne
O'Byrne has alleged, he was asked to leave the seminary after he objected to incidents of anti-Semitism. He later was admitted into Saint Andrew Hall, the Jesuit Novitiate in Syracuse for his primary formation as a Jesuit. After two years, he followed the traditional path to ordination by completing his philosophy studies at Loyola University Chicago, while working at St. Peter's College where he was assigned by his superiors to work as assistant to the President. He was the first person to hold that title at St. Peter's. O'Byrne went on to seminary at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge in 1994, and received two masters degrees. During his studies in Cambridge, he acted as Harvard Law School's chaplain, and worked as a teaching fellow at Harvard University with Robert Coles, the Pulitzer-prize winning author. He was called "brilliant", "determined", and a "hard worker" by several Jesuit priests, and followed the conservatism of Pope John Paul II, with one priest describing him as "being part of the orthodoxy police, theologically, making sure the teachers were really teaching the party line and all that stuff. Charles was seen on that part of the culture wars."
In 1996, he was ordained as a priest, working at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan, although his orthodoxy did not last long. He made notable appearances presiding over both the wedding and funeral of Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996 and 1999. He received a voluntary Decree of Dismissal from the Society of Jesus in 2002 when his superiors determined he no longer wished to remain in the Order. In an interview with Newsday, he described leaving the elite order as a bittersweet experience, commenting that being "A Jesuit is sort of like being an enlightened waiter at a segregated counter."
Article in Playboy magazine
- See also: Criticism of the Catholic Church, Homosexuality in the Roman Catholic priesthood, Homosexuality and Roman Catholicism, and 2005 Vatican instruction on homosexuals in the priesthood
O'Byrne was the author of a September 2002 article in Playboy magazine that alleged hypocrisy and sexual dysfunction in the Catholic church entitled "Sex & Sexuality: One Man’s Story About Religious Life and What Seminaries Really Teach About Sex." The article caused some controversy, portraying his fellow seminarians as men who entered the religious life with "little or no sexual experience", who made up for lost time, describing that "There was sex all around me, including relationships between Jesuits." A fellow priest and colleague told the New York Observer that the article caused some resentment towards O'Byrne.
The article was part of a memoir that was never published. It referred to some members of the clergy as "close-minded bigots". He described the prevalence of what he called "boyologist" priests who held an unnatural interest in young male parishioners. The Catholic League criticized O'Byrnes article, noting that "he wrote of his dislike of the Church's teachings about celibacy, contraception, fornication and homosexuality.
In 2003, he joined Howard Dean's presidential campaign as Policy Director for New York, and was then hired as a speech writer. After Dean dropped out of the race, O'Byrne did volunteer work in New York City, but his service with Dean had been so impressive that he received a call from State Senate Minority Leader David Paterson's office, offering him a job as a speechwriter. In In 2005, he was promoted to Director of Press Operations, where he oversaw and coordinated press and communications efforts for the Minority Leader's Office and the Democratic Conference. Soon after that appointment he was promoted again to Senior Policy Counsel and then to Deputy Chief of Staff. In January 2006 Paterson named him Acting Chief of Staff.
He maintained his position when Paterson was elected Lieutenant Governor of New York, and was elevated to Secretary to the Governor (the functional Chief of Staff) upon Paterson's accession to the Governorship. Both Paterson and O'Byrne are Columbia alumni. As Secretary to the Governor, he is seen as the "tough guy" to counterbalance the more casual Paterson. The position of O'Byrne, and his openly gay deputy secretary Sean Patrick Maloney in the Paterson administration, signals strong support of civil rights for the LBGT community, and Democratic political consultant Ethan Geto noted that "[Paterson] is a guy who couldn’t be more gay friendly. He’s an enormous ally." Archdiocese of New York spokesman Joseph Zwilling said O'Byrne's controversial past "certainly won't impede us from working with the governor."
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- "22nd Annual NEW YORK TRI/BI-ATHLON SERIES Race #1, Harriman State Park, Sunday, June 10, 2007. Retrieved April 4, 2007.
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- O'Byrne, Charles J. "SEX & SEXUALITY: One Man’s Story About Religious Life And What Seminaries Really Teach About Sex". Playboy. September 2002.
- Schenden, Greg. "Christmas in a Novitiate". Company Magazine. December 1996.
- VandeVelde, Dick. "Ordination '97". Company Magazine. September 6, 1997.
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- Smith, Ben. "Friday reading: Charles O'Byrne". Politico. March 14, 2008.
- Straube, Trenton. "New Guv Is ‘Terrific Ally’". New York Blade. March 7, 2008.
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