Abused Kids Pawns in Brooklyn Power Struggle?

by Aaron Short (BushwickBK.com)
April 3rd, 2009

On the Sunday before Holy Week, the most solemn period of the year for Catholics throughout the world, Father James O'Shea slumped back in his seat on the pulpit of All Saints Church in Williamsburg. He has prepared a sermon about suffering and the struggle to be faithful when the world turns against you.

"Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered. Obedience means to listen," O'Shea said to a crowd of two-dozen parishioners during the 8 AM mass. "We must listen deeply to the word of God and listen to each other. A lot of suffering comes because we choose to love one another."

O'Shea was not just preaching to his audience. Until November, he served as the Executive Director of Churches United, a coalition of Catholic parishes in North Brooklyn. During his tenure, the organization focused on advocating for housing more affordable for his flock in Williamsburg's South Side neighborhood. That is, they did until Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn asked O'Shea to step down.

After the Diocese reconstituted the board of directors, appointing retired Bishop Joseph Sullivan its Chair, members of the original Churches United board formed a new organization, Churches United for Fair Housing.

Friends at Churches United for Fair Housing assert O'Shea was forced to leave because of his vocal opposition to the city's rezoning plans of a 31-acre lot north of the Woodhull Medical Center known as the Broadway Triangle. They believe that he is afraid to comment on the record about his dismissal because Diocese leaders have threatened to transfer him to another parish out of the city.

For the past thirty years, multiple religious organizations, housing nonprofit groups, and local elected officials have fought over the development of the site, which once occupied as the headquarters of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Alliances between organizations have shifted over time, but a partnership forged by Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez in the summer of 2005 between the United Jewish Organization (UJO), Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), which Lopez founded, and which has previous experience building such housing in Bushwick, now appears to be the most prepared to bringing the project to fruition.

Housing groups such as St. Nicholas NPC, Los Sures Community Development Company, Brooklyn Legal Services, and Churches United found themselves excluded from the negotiations and shut out of the development project. Three years of contentious meetings followed, leading to the dissolution of Churches United and O'Shea's departure. The city is currently evaluating rezoning plans that will bring 1,895 units of below-market housing to the area in six- to ten-story buildings.

O'Shea and his allies may have reached their breaking point. The Diocese's increasingly close relationship with members of the New York State Legislature, particularly Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, has angered them. This week in Albany, Lopez reintroduced a bill, strongly supported by the Catholic Church, to amend the statute of limitations regarding criminal prosecution and civil action in child sexual abuse cases. The bill passed the Assembly Codes Committee by a vote of 18-1 on March 31. A rival bill, introduced by Queens Assemblywoman Marge Markey and advanced by the Codes Committee two weeks ago in an 11-8 vote, includes a one-year suspension of the statute of limitations allowing victims to bring civil actions against the Church, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.

The Brooklyn Diocese's aggressive lobbying in support of Lopez's bill has raised eyebrows in his district. Broadway Triangle Community Coalition (BTCC) leaders believe that the Brooklyn Dioceses splintered Churches United and pressured local priests to support the UJO's and RBSCC's control of the Broadway Triangle project in return for Assemblyman Lopez's legislative efforts to block Markey's bill from passage with his own, more lenient sexual abuse bill.

"The Diocese of Brooklyn has overtly leaned on the pastors and priests of all the affected parishes to back off any opposition from Vito with respect to the Broadway Triangle and support exclusionary control by Vito and the UJO," said Marty Needelman, an attorney representing the BTCC. "The Church has no benefit to that other than payback to Vito for trying to stop the extension of the statute of limitation."

Lopez's allies are incensed by the suggestion, claiming Needelman's press release is inflammatory. His office has refused to comment and Lopez himself said the matter was not worth addressing. Father Kieran Harrington, a spokesperson with the Brooklyn Dioceses, said the release "had no merit to it," and that it was a desperate attempt by Churches United for Fair Housing to link the two issues together.

Brooklyn Assemblyman and Codes Committee Chair Joseph Lentol has supported the tougher Markey bill from the beginning and hopes to reach a compromise between the two bills in the Assembly in the coming months.

"[Lopez and DiMarzio] have a common purpose," said Lentol. "They are both interested in affordable housing in Brooklyn. The Bishop needs affordable housing because if you don't have any affordable housing, you won't have any parishioners. Their relationship began in 2005 with the need for affordable housing on the waterfront. Everyone was on the same page."

Today they are not. Public officials predict that the rezoning remains a year away but that the union between Williamsburg's Hasidic community, Ridgewood-Bushwick, and local church groups may be the best chance for development to occur on the Pfizer site.

"The Triangle has been languishing for decades," said Lentol. "If this deal fails, there may never be an agreement."

Meanwhile, the competing sex abuse bills are set to square off in the State Assembly in the coming weeks. Both bills have similar provisions, with Lopez's bill extending the statute of limitations by two years beyond the age of 18, legal adulthood.

Markey's bill adds five years to the current statute of limitations and includes a controversial one-year window period for victims to recover damages from past instances of child abuse, which the Church opposes.

"Right now the budget and the MTA are all-consuming but it will likely come to the floor of the Assembly after those bills happen," said Mike Armstrong, a spokesperson with Assemblywoman Markey. "What is different this time is that the Senate is in play this year." The Senate this year is controlled by Democrats.

Markey's office remains confident their bill will pass, claiming support within Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office and has promised to not remove the one-year window provision from its bill. Lopez noted that his draft has forty-five sponsors with support throughout the "progressive" community and that Governor David Paterson has also signaled his approval.

Legal advocacy groups have also begun taking sides in the bills, with Markey counting abuse victim's organizations and trial lawyer attorneys in her camp and Lopez pointing to support from diverse groups such as Legal Aid Society, Jerry Lefcourt of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, and Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"The imposition of a statute-of-limitation period is intended to lessen the possibility that a person is convicted because a person can't adequately defend against charges that occurred in the past, when memories have faded, documents aren't available and witnesses aren't available," said Steven Banks, Legal Aid attorney-in-chief, in an interview with the New York Law Journal.

The NYCLU originally supported the Lopez bill but has revised its position to oppose any extension of the statue of limitations. Marcy Hamilton, a legal scholar at Cardozo Law School who has written extensively about child abuse cases, is not surprised.

"The Lopez bill is intended to immunize the Church and is a very bad bill for child abuse victims," said Hamilton. "There have been similar bills in other states, but I've never seen one as so brazen as to immunize the Church altogether. That's one of the reasons it was killed in Committee."

Lopez's support from the Catholic Church is not in doubt. Earlier this month, Assemblyman Lopez addressed a convocation of Brooklyn- and Queens-based clergy leaders, asking for their support and to lobby against the Markey bill. According to several members who attended the conference, Lopez was warmly received and had a friendly rapport with Church leaders. In 2005, Lopez successfully introduced a comprehensive education tax bill, backed by the Church, allowing parents of public and private schoolchildren to claim an extra $330 per child credit on their state income tax. Last summer, at Lopez's request, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio led a funeral mass for a victim of gang violence in a city park in Williamsburg.

What is puzzling is why Lopez changed his mind on Markey's child abuse bill last year after supporting previous incarnations of the bill that passed the Assembly in 2006 and 2007. Over the past three years, the State Assembly passed Markey's legislation but it never reached the floor of the State Senate. The previous Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno, did not allow any Democratic bills to come up for a vote and the bill died before it was ever introduced. This year, Catholic leaders believe they must lobby legislators more forcefully because they feared the Markey bill would have a strong chance of passing.

"[If the Markey bill passes], it will bankrupt the Catholic Church and it will take away from a lot of good institutions and programs that the Church provides, especially to the poor and urban communities," said Debra Feinberg, legislative counsel with Assemblyman Lopez, in an interview with the Diocese's Brooklyn Tablet. Feinberg drafted the original and revised versions of the bill. "Think about how horrible this would be, if this bankrupted the Church, especially in the Brooklyn area, people go there for everything, from housing to meals to all kinds of assistance."

Lopez said that he began to fully understand the ramifications of the one-year suspension of the statute of limitations in 2008, when he first voted against the Markey bill. Sources in the State Senate believe that Lopez's bill is a straw bill designed to draw support away from Markey's legislation and ultimately defeat it. If Markey's bill becomes law, Lopez can approach the Catholic Conference saying that he supported their interests but his bill was ultimately defeated. If Lopez's bill passes the Assembly, his influence with the Archdiocese of New York will surely grow.

Sitting in a hallway outside the State Assembly chambers after the Codes Committee passed his bill, Lopez shared his thoughts about the process. He greeted Father Harrington and other members of the Catholic Conference who made the trip to Albany to watch the vote.

"Now there can be a dialogue between the two bills... so we can have closure on this issue," said Lopez.

Closure is something that Father O'Shea wishes for as well. The circumstances surrounding his departure remain unclear and he will not speak publicly about his resignation. O'Shea is not involved with any housing lobbying efforts but he remains the pastor at Our Lady of Monserrate.

Rob Solano, Executive Director of Churches United for Fair Housing, asserted O'Shea was forced to leave because of his vocal opposition to the rezoning of the Broadway Triangle. He and other coalition leaders believe that O'Shea is afraid to comment on the record about his dismissal because Diocese leaders have threatened to transfer him to another parish out of the city.

The Diocese's lobbying efforts regarding the sex abuse bills may change his mind. Two weeks ago, the Brooklyn Diocese arranged for four buses of Jornadistas, Hispanic Catholic youth evangelists, to travel to Albany to lobby Assemblymembers to oppose the Markey bill. More than 150 Jornadistas personally visited the offices of state legislators after writing and emailing them over two weeks.

"We were told by our Catholic pastors that the Broadway Triangle was too political, that we must keep a separation between Church and state but turn around and support Vito Lopez Bill and then send four buses filled with children to Albany," said Solano. "Why can't these pastors stand up and fight to maximize affordable housing?"

All of this political activity has troubled long-time parish leaders who prefer the intentions of the Markey bill to bring to justice colleagues who preyed on children without impunity and finally end this troubled era of the Church's history.

"DiMarzio doesn't know what's going on," one pastor said, refusing to be identified. "Allowing Vito to save you is the wrong move. He doesn't give a damn about the Catholic Church."