The surprisingly sad McGreevey story

When I first read this profile of James McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey, I thought it was a pretty puffy piece. McGreevey, you’ll recall, resigned after a former aide accused him of sexual harassment. In one of the most exciting press conferences I can recall, McGreevey announced his resignation by saying “My truth is that I am a gay American.” Reporters live for this kind of stuff. I love a good sex scandal and I remember sitting in my newsroom with my mouth ajar, thinking “this will never be topped.” And then just five years later we had that press conference with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Anyway, Paul Vitello of the New York Times looks at McGreevey’s pursuit of ordination. And like I said, at first I thought it was oddly favorable. As I read it a second time, though, I realized it’s actually not. The gist of the piece is that McGreevey has this goal, which we’ve discussed before, and why he’s having some trouble achieving that goal. And then the last half of the piece is how he’s this awesome counselor.

Here’s how it begins:

NEWARK — The man once known as “robo-candidate” still acts like a campaigner in the thick of a close race. He does not enter rooms of people so much as plunge into them, hugging and hand-clasping his way from wall to wall. His smile is outsize, and almost as indelible as a campaign poster.

In one sense, James E. McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor, is again campaigning for office: He hopes to be accepted as a candidate for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, which has begun ordaining openly gay men and women. He has already earned a divinity degree, but his application to proceed with the next step, to become a postulant, was rejected in May 2010. He says he plans to keep trying, and his current work is a kind of test ground of his commitment.

Mr. McGreevey is the newest recovery specialist at a residential drug treatment center in Newark called Integrity House, and one recent morning he zigzagged buoyantly down the street, like the perennial political office-seeker he used to be. Everyone he saw received a holler, a handshake or a lingering moment of schmoozing.

OK, I guess we should point out that the Episcopal Church hasn’t just “begun” ordaining openly gay men and women. They’ve been doing it since I was three years old. Since 1977.

And if you keep reading the piece, you’ll probably agree that this is about as favorable of coverage as McGreevey could hope for. We only get three words from his resignation speech (“a gay American”) and his side of the story about what went down with the former staffer. There are many positive comments about what he’s working on and all the good he’s doing. There are no critical, or even suspicious, voices. McGreevey partially blames the Catholic Church for his previous woes and the allegation just stands there.

In the middle of the story, though, we get this intriguing graph:

He had what he calls a “nervous breakdown.” He entered rehab. He began to tally the cruelties he had committed against his wives and others. He penned a tell-all autobiography, “The Confession,” in which he confessed to many things, including a lifelong addiction to “having a public,” and described his new ambition as attaining “a life organized in harmony with my heart.”

And it sort of hits you that the reporter did a really good job of framing the story as McGreevey’s latest campaign. And it hits you that this man who is supposed to be recovering from a lifelong addiction to “having a public” has been returning the calls of a New York Times reporter and inviting him to hang out and highlight his work. In the New York Times. And then the story doesn’t seem puffy at all. It takes on a certain sadness, even.

Anyway, there’s a reasonable explanation of what’s probably holding up his application:

Neither he nor the Episcopal Diocese of Newark would discuss the status of his application for the priesthood. But two people told about the process said that a diocesan committee, after reviewing his qualifications, concluded that too little time had passed since Mr. McGreevey’s dramatic life changes — from secretly to openly gay, from Roman Catholic to Episcopalian, from politician to aspiring clergyman — for anyone, including him, to know if he was ready to be a priest.

The piece also included some interesting quotes about how McGreevey hopes to “bring Christian doctrine to a postmodern world.”

And there’s lots more on the campaign for ordination. And even more about that thirst for a public, such as how he “accomodates” every request for a photograph. It’s nice to see a reporter take some more time on this intriguing story and include some good religious details, too.

Print Friendly

  • Ted

    Your compassion overwhelms me, Mollie. In this snarky posting, you get to sneer at both a gay man and the Episcopal Church, a two-fer!

  • Mollie


    I’m not following you. What do you mean? Where did I snark? Much less at “a gay man” and “the Episcopal Church”?

    And, more importantly, what did you think of the journalism? Deftly handled or no?

  • Ted

    Mollie, I thought it was an excellent story. I found the following passage especially intriguing:

    He sought comfort in Catholicism, the faith of his childhood, but at the same time sensed that his previously closeted existence, and what he calls “the total mess of my life,” was at least partly caused by Catholic teaching that condemns homosexual behavior as sinful. The man who once admitted to having sold his soul to his ambition (his own phrase) decided that his true calling was to minister to people he knew best, from personal experience: people who hated themselves.

    Like you, I think the framing of the story as McGreevy’s latest campaign was effective. One might meditate on the similarity between religious leaders and politicians.

    I did not find the story sad.

  • Ryan K.

    If Arnold was still in office his recent scandal would have topped both Sanford and McGreevey. I could only imagine what that press conference would have been like…

  • bob

    Of course a diocese can’t publicly discuss any would-be postulant and the vetting process. That much isn’t a religious story. What would have made it interesting and what I think is missing is the remarkable restraint from a remarkably unrestrained diocese of the Episcopal Church. This is a place renowned for its former bishop John Spong. He continues to seek the limelight with his own column and web site. That the diocese is now putting someone with this background in the slow lane for consideration is worthy of comment. There’s clearly a lot more to it!

  • Mollie

    My truth is that I love sex scandals, as I’ve said. And one of the weirdest press conferences I can remember was when the governor of my state (Colorado) was caught making out with a DC lobbyist type. In a car at the airport or something. And so he does this press conference with his wife and kids where the kids say something to the effect of “We love Bea (that would be their mother) and we love B.J. (that would be the other woman) and this is how our family works and goodbye.”

    My memory may be a bit off on it, but that’s sort of how I remember it. Unless Maria knew about the other baby, I can’t imagine it being QUITE that weird.

    Of course, even with my jaundiced and cynical view of politicians, I was still utterly shocked that Schwarzenegger had kept that baby a secret for 10 years. Didn’t know he had it in him!

    Okay, sorry, back to journalism issues. Actually, to keep on the Schwarz thing, let me know if you see any good stories that incorporate the religious angle of that family’s Catholic religion. To this point, the criticism is that there AREN’T any stories that do a good job of including that.

  • Mollie

    A reader writes that the same reporter has given different treatment to other religious figures, fwiw.

  • Ted

    Paul Vitello is a wonderful writer. His profile of Bill Donohue also strikes me as well done. Donohue is very different from McGreevy. Surely the reader who brought up the Donohue profile doesn’t think the two stories should be identical?

  • John R.

    “[A] diocesan committee, after reviewing his qualifications, concluded that too little time had passed since Mr. McGreevey’s dramatic life changes — from secretly to openly gay, from Roman Catholic to Episcopalian, from politician to aspiring clergyman…”

    The same could be said about Alberto Cutie and his dramatic life changes (ex. leading a secret life in betraying his promise of celibacy with a divorcee, being a prominent public through his radio show, and aspiring to become an Episcopalian priest). And yet in McGreevey’s case the “open and welcoming” Episcopal Church judges him not ready!

    I guess ordaining a self-identified former Catholic gay man who attacks Catholic teaching just doesn’t have the impact the Episcopalian Church is looking for as allowing a popular defrocked Catholic priest who chose adultery over Church teaching to minister as one of its own does.

  • mattk

    I think if I was interviewing McGreevy I’d ask him why, given his addiction to “having a public” he doesn’t become a monk instead of priest. It seems like a sensible question to me, and I’d beinterested in knowing the answer since it would shed light on McGreevy’s understanding of repentance, ministry, and dealing with addiction.

  • Julia

    From the Donohue piece:

    It has been a busy week for Mr. Donohue, a contentious and unofficial enforcer of Roman Catholic sensibilities who can grate on enemies and friends alike with his immense ability to be offended on behalf of his church.

    I can’t imagine the NYT saying anything like this about the Anti-defamation League or the NAACP who are also often offended.

  • Julia

    Yes, why is he getting different treatment from Cutie who was swiftly accepted and given a prominent assignment?

    And, yes, why not ask if a more retired life (as a monk or otherwise) might be more in line with his stated aims?

  • Kat

    I cannot say I admire this man at all. This article was very interesting, and I think it highlights something bigger. I am sad to say that I no longer call myself an Episcopalian because of circumstances like these-the ordination of homosexual men AND women has come as a blow because it is not an example of tolerance but an example of making the church conform to us. THIS IS NOT TRUE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE. It is we who should conform to the church and not the church that should conform to the world. Consider, for example, McGreevey’s conversion. Roman Catholicism wouldn’t tolerate it, so he went to the Episcopalian church ,believing that because this church tolerates this behavior, that the behavior, and his subsequent conversion, are justified. Forgive me if I have insulted anyone, but the church that calls itself Episcopalian is not practicing the faith originally created for it, but it is instead practicing a form of sociopolitical tolerance that should not be tied into the church. And McGreevey cannot say that because he is converting and confessing that what he has done can be fixed or is right. I only wish that he might see that. We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God, but we cannot try to change our doctrines and faith to assuage our guilt. This is a universal message, not just to McGreevey, but to all Christians.

  • Mollie


    This is not the place to discuss personal opinions about McGreevey or the ECUSA but, rather, the journalism surrounding such issues. Please keep comments focused on that topic.

  • Martha

    I have to agree with the Cutié remarks; granted, there are two different dioceses involved, but if ground for refusing admission to the ordination process are “It’s too soon”, then surely Fr. Cutié as was should have been told wait a bit longer?

    It certainly isn’t because he’s gay that he’s being denied. I have to say, I think it’s the whole manner of how it all came about that is holding him up. Whatever about coming out as a gay American, the revelations that he abused the public trust by using his office to appoint his lover to a government position is what is killing his application.

    Though I must say, I was more cynical about motives on both parties’ sides before this piece, Mollie. Now I am willing to accept that the diocese is asking him to enter onto a period of reflection on spiritual grounds and I do wonder why he is so insistent on seeking ordination so quickly after his change of denomination – that is definitely something he needs to sort out for himself.

    Congratulations, you made me have a shred of sympathy for the man!

  • Judy Harrow

    Grr! I’ve been frustrated about this story ever since it first broke. I am a New Jerseyan who is very much in favor of marriage equality and every other kind of equal treatment for people of all sexual orientations — and I am offended beyond words by McGreevey’s diversionary tactics.

    I guess Americans are just too fixated on sex.

    The problem was nepotism, not homosexuality. It would have been just as bad if McGreevey had given a cushy patronage job to a female lover, a wife, or any other family member. By playing the gay card, he successfully diverted almost everybody’s attention from his very corrupt behavior. I’m outraged by this, and almost equally offended that I have not heard of him being called on it.

  • Jon in the Nati

    but if ground for refusing admission to the ordination process are “It’s too soon”, then surely Fr. Cutié as was should have been told wait a bit longer?

    I’m quite certain that a big part of the difference in Cutie’s case was the fact that he was already ordained to the priesthood in a church whose orders are naturally considered to be valid; he had already been through discernment, formation and seminary training. For him, the process (political and sensation as it surely was) was more akin to transferring from one body to another; he did not go through the ordination process again, and was not re-ordained in the ECUSA.

    Whether the ECUSA is right to handle McGreevey as it has, comparisons to the Cutie situation are not terribly apt because of the differences.

  • John Penta

    Judy: It’s New Jersey. You and I both know that nepotism like that is pretty low-grade corruption around here. It has to be something special to get noticed by the media, like organ transplants being involved. I would wager that even the lover involved being another man, while the pol is married, is nothing particularly new in Trenton.

    That said, like Mollie, I remember McGreevey’s speech with a sort of “Wow…Just wow.” And then you realize it’s been topped since – repeatedly.

    And I think that’s when part of me just dies inside, before I wonder if politicians don’t set out to intentionally top the last bizarre scandal.

  • Martha

    I’m with Judy on this; he used his sexual orientation in a quite deliberate bid to avoid prosecution for public corruption by playing the “Homophobia! I am being persecuted because I’m gay!” card. That’s typical politician, of course, but the price they pay for using their personal lives as vote fodder (trotting out the missus and kids on the campaign trail, using their cute pets, gun club membership, environmental credentials etc.) is that they end up with falsity everywhere.

    And that’s probably why it’s advisable for him to take more time to consider who and what he is and wants, rather than rushing into another form of office once again.

    Jon in the Nati, I would dispute one thing: Fr. Cutié was all that you said, but the big question is this: he had broken his ordination vows. Any new church would surely need to take a period of discernment to evaluate was he likely to repeat this behaviour in his new denomination if he had any disagreement with the hierarchy, and the Bishop of Florida didn’t do that. He was much too happy to announce the publicity coup of the catch.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Any new church would surely need to take a period of discernment to evaluate was he likely to repeat this behaviour in his new denomination if he had any disagreement with the hierarchy [...]

    Probably true, but also mostly irrelevant. I’m not suggesting that the Diocese of S. Florida handled Cutie in the ‘proper’ way, or that Newark is now handling McGreevey ‘properly’. But whatever else it may have been, Cutie’s process of reception into the Episcopal Church is not the same process that McGreevey is now going through. I would suggest that comparing them, particularly with regard to the time periods involved, to score rhetorical points is ill-advised.

  • Maggie Gallagher

    More on the Colorado polyamorist gov here, I had not heard the story thanks.

  • Assistant Village Idiot

    The journalist, I suspect, has considerable sympathy with ECUSA ordaining gays, but less sympathy for McGreevey personally. I am not sure if the former is a religious opinion or a social/political one, but the flavor “four legs good, two legs bad” regarding progressive and conservative religion comes through.

    Yet he pretty clearly sees that McGreevey “was” addicted to having a public yet shows no evidence of having got beyond that.

  • Trochilus

    Developing a coherent perspective on the ongoing efforts by Jim McGreevey to continue engaging in this courtly dance of his with the ECUSA, is really inseparable from having at least some solid insights into his personality over time.

    It is, I believe — every single shred of it — a campaign in much the same mold as was his relentless pursuit, over the years, of the governorship of the State New Jersey.

    Once achieved, I also personally believe, he will find a way to disparage or at least embarrass the Church that has embraced him as a priest, and, he will do so in a way that the inherently embarrassing aspects thereof, will likely stymie the ability of the Church to address it in a decisive manner. The ECUSA cannot express that view, of course, but perhaps sensing that something really “doesn’t feel quite right,” they have at least kicked the can down the road. A portion of what “doesn’t feel quite right” must include this unsettling persistence of his to keep grasping for the spotlight.

    In Trenton, journalism and journalists failed on any acceptable level over time to understand what many people who worked there knew was an institutional insouciance on the part of McGreevey. He is a man for whom everything has nearly always been “all about him” including a rather petty dramatic flair, which some mistook for charm. Once he was Governor, the press simply chose to ignore what he was literally rubbing in their faces. And the rest, as they say, is history.