Brooklyn Bishop’s Close Ties With [Former New York State Assemblyman] Vito Lopez May Be Frayed
By SHARON OTTERMAN
New York Times
Published: October 01, 2012
New York’s most powerful politicians have lined up to call for the resignation of Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, the onetime Brooklyn Democratic kingmaker, since news broke in August that an ethics panel censured him for what it said was the sexual harassment of two female employees earlier in the summer.
But there has been a conspicuous silence from religious leaders who have regularly cooperated with him politically in Brooklyn, notably Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. The bishop went as far as recording a robocall in 2009 in support of a City Council candidate Mr. Lopez was backing, and when he was recently asked, through a spokesman, what he thought about the allegations, he responded with a carefully worded statement.
“There is no place in our society for sexual harassment,” said Bishop DiMarzio, who has led the diocese, which also includes Queens, since 2003.
“In our nation, the courts determine whether someone is guilty of a crime,” he added. “Voters are charged with determining the suitability of individuals for elected office. As a priest and bishop, my primary concern is for the salvation of those souls in my care. My responsibility is to remind us all that we are called to seek repentance and forgiveness.”
Bishop DiMarzio is not the only local religious leader with ties to Mr. Lopez, who is Catholic. Mr. Lopez has also forged close ties to Rabbi David Niederman, the executive director of the United Jewish Organizations in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, over subsidized housing for Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Niederman said he did not want to comment on the scandal.
Bishop DiMarzio has had a complex relationship with Mr. Lopez – it had been collaborative, but then appeared, some said, to have cooled when Mr. Lopez voted in favor of same-sex marriage. The lack of specificity in Bishop DiMarzio’s statement was not surprising, priests, political analysts and politicians said. Not only does Mr. Lopez retain his position as the de facto head of the multifaceted Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a nonprofit agency whose $120 million budget makes it one of the area’s biggest providers of services and jobs, but he also retains political influence, even though he did not seek re-election as his borough’s Democratic Party chairman.
For the bishop, who oversees a diocese with deep budget troubles and a large social service operation, forming beneficial political alliances is part of the job, political analysts said. And Bishop DiMarzio has wielded his power and influence with gusto, they say, outspoken in the fight against same-sex marriage, and active in wrangling votes against a bill to temporarily lift the statute of limitations on sexual abuse charges, including those against priests.
He holds breakfasts with lawmakers to explain his views, and in his weekly column in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, he has called upon church members to rise up against legislation they dislike.
“Bishop DiMarzio is actually a political brawler,” said Michael Tobman, a political consultant. “He has no problems mixing it up politically and calling folks out for what he believes to be bad policy or ill intent.”
The bishop’s relationship with Mr. Lopez is striking, in part because the two men have similar temperaments, strong-willed and uncompromising, people who have worked with them say. It appeared to reach its apogee in 2008 and 2009, in the fight over a 31-acre swath of blighted land, known as the Broadway Triangle, that touches Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick.
Mr. Lopez was seeking to control development of the Broadway Triangle – progress on the plan has now stalled – and Bishop DiMarzio was seeking to defeat the bill on the statute of limitations, sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey, Democrat of Queens, which could have made the church vulnerable to hundreds of millions of dollars in legal liability to compensate victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Mr. Lopez, who had previously supported the Markey bill, changed his mind in 2008.
“I met with the Diocese of Brooklyn,” he said on the floor of the Assembly on June 11, 2008, according to a transcript provided by Ms. Markey. “I built a pretty close relationship with them, something I’m very proud of.”
He added, “And they are pleading with me to do something, you know, about this.” Later that year, he wrote a competing bill; neither has become law.
About the same time, the diocese asked the Rev. James O’Shea, a priest who had argued with Mr. Lopez over the Broadway Triangle development, to resign as the head of a group called Churches United, Father O’Shea recounted in 2009.
The timing raised eyebrows, but the diocese and Mr. Lopez have both denied that there was a relationship between Mr. Lopez’s position on the abuse bill and the resignation; the diocese also said it did not prompt Father O’Shea’s resignation.
The bishop’s spokeswoman, Stefanie Gutierrez, said he had never endorsed or campaigned for candidates. But he twice recorded robocalls during political races, apparently prompted by his concern over the Markey bill; Ms. Gutierrez did not respond to questions on the calls.
In 2008, Bishop DiMarzio recorded a call to voters in Assemblywoman Markey’s district. It did not directly mention her opponent, Anthony Nunziato, a Republican, but urged constituents “to vote for a candidate that demonstrates Catholic values,” Ms. Markey said.
In 2009, the bishop made a robocall that ran in the district of one of Mr. Lopez’s favored Council candidates, Maritza Davila, who was running in the a Democratic primary against an incumbent, Diana Reyna. The call praised Mr. Lopez’s service to the church. “His intent was to thank Vito, who has taken the greatest grief for helping us,” Msgr. Kieran E. Harrington, the bishop’s vicar for communications, said at the time.
The diocese did not comment on the specifics of Bishop DiMarzio’s relationship with Mr. Lopez; Mr. Lopez’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
But people who have worked with the men said that in recent years, their relationship seemed to have cooled. One reason may have been that in 2010, news leaked that Mr. Lopez was at the center of two federal corruption investigations. Then in 2011, Mr. Lopez voted for same-sex marriage, despite Catholic leaders’ opposition. Speaking of Mr. Lopez’s vote on same-sex marriage, Msgr. James Kelly, who has been at St. Brigid Church, in Mr. Lopez’s district, for 52 years, said, “I think that was the end of his toying with the diocese.”
Monsignor Kelly also said he thought the bishop had struck the right note in his statement about the sexual harassment scandal, because no court had yet ruled. ” ‘Judge not and ye shall not be judged,’ ” the monsignor said.