The New York Times today set out the unfortunate story of how the U.S. bishops' spokesman on domestic policy ousted a priest who was highly effective as a housing organizer from his job as head of a Brooklyn housing advocacy organization.The priest, Father Jim O'Shea, a Passionist, had done a remarkable job of organizing the residents of the rapidly gentrifying Williamsburg and Greenpoint sections of Brooklyn to win commitments for thousands of units of affordable housing at a time when the city was re-zoning the neighborhoods to vastly increase luxury developments. It was considered an unlikely victory at the time for the local residents, many of them poor Latinos or Polish immigrants.O'Shea led a group called Churches United for Housing, run by a board of lay people and some of the pastors of local parishes. Notwithstanding the board's structure or rules, Diocese of Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio intervened with the local pastors and ordered them to fire the priest from his post, according to supporters of O'Shea. O'Shea ultimately resigned the job. The lay members of Churches United, furious with the bishop, formed their own group.Why would a bishop known for his concern about housing and immigration destroy an organization that was a model for addressing issues he cares about deeply?The Times story gave a voice to what lay members of the former Churches United board say happened: that Bishop DiMarzio had essentially formed an alliance with the Brooklyn Democratic boss, Vito Lopez, and that Father O'Shea was ousted because he was at odds with Mr. Lopez in a local housing dispute. Indeed, the bishop has frequently praised Lopez because, as a state legislator, he has played a leading role in opposing the Markey Bill, which would allow victims of sexual abuse a one-year reprieve from the statute of limitations to file lawsuits.Is the good and much needed work of Father O'Shea and his friends collateral damage to the fight against the Markey Bill? If there is any other plausible explanation for what's occurred, I would like to see it.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.