In a common room of the Hudson County, N.J., jail, the state’s former governor opens his Bible. Gathered around him is a group of about 20 women, all prisoners, most dealing with the consequences of drug addiction, abuse and related traumas. Though it is customary for ex-politicians to be addressed by their prior titles, the women just call him “Jim,” their familiarity rooted in his twice-weekly sessions, which begin with him asking, “How are we feeling today?” This afternoon one answers, “I’m tired, frustrated.” Adds a second: “Another day sober. I feel good.” Jim McGreevey, their counselor, says, “I’m grateful to be here.” Then he reads from Exodus, a story of redemption.
Eight years ago McGreevey was extracting himself from his own downfall: Married to a woman with whom he had a young child, he was carrying on an affair with a man he had appointed to a homeland security post and who later threatened him with a sexual harassment suit. Today McGreevey is a priest-in-training, calling on his experience to help others make their own clean starts.
McGreevey, 55, resigned in 2004, and split from his wife, Dina Matos. He took the usual steps that people take after a sex scandal-wrote a tell-all memoir and spent six months in a trauma and addiction treatment center in Arizona. Then he did something surprising: The Catholic-raised McGreevey converted to Episcopalianism in order to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a priest. “I can say this years after: The resignation was a blessing,” says McGreevey now, talking in the warden’s office at the Hudson County jail. “It enabled me to look at my unvarnished self without the trappings and power and office, and to see myself before my God-who I was, and what I believe I was meant to do.”
His first step was to leave the Catholic church, which will not ordain known homosexuals. (The Episcopal church has both married and gay clergy.) “It was beyond difficult,” he says. “But I couldn’t, in good conscience, not be who I was.”
After earning a divinity degree in 2010, he became a recovery specialist at Integrity House, a drug treatment center, which won a contract for an innovative women’s program at the jail where McGreevey offers spiritual counseling. Though never charged with a crime, McGreevey says he feels a kinship with the prisoners. “I felt they were being judged by the worst moment of their lives.” He doesn’t see his calling as atonement for his own missteps. “If it’s penance, it’s joyful, not sackcloth and ashes. I receive far more in blessings than I could give.”
Those who have watched him are impressed. “He gets them to engage each other,” says Warden Oscar Aviles. Adds inmate Veronica Merrill, 53: “I was thinking, ‘If this guy can find peace in his broken pieces, then perhaps I can too.'” McGreevey recalls when another woman told him, “‘I’ve got 26 felony convictions; nobody is going to hire me. I’m going to be a prostitute again-that’s the only way I can make enough money to take care of my grandkids.'” He says he told her, “‘I pray for you. Be careful. I know you are loved by God.’ She said, ‘Jim, I can live with that. Thank you.'”
He is there for them after hours and on holidays, whether they are in or out of jail, when they feel most despondent. “They want what every human being wants-to be loved and valued-so I try to do that in whatever imperfect way I can. They haven’t been blessed with what I have: parents, family, a partner.”
Today McGreevey is in a long-term relationship with finance executive Mark O’Donnell, and he shares custody of 10-year-old daughter Jacqueline with Matos. He hopes to become a bona fide priest someday-the process is long, and his ordination is at the discretion of the Newark Episcopal Diocese-so he can perform Mass at the jail. But for now he is content: “This is where I believe I was always called to be. It’s been a somewhat tortuous journey, but I’m home.”