Thomas Fitzgerald: Documentary to show McGreevey working with jailed women

Posted: March 27, 2013

For former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, an Irish prince, the story was supposed to end with him in the Oval Office.

Instead, he is in and out of jail in Hudson County. Not as a prisoner, but working as a spiritual counselor to a group of incarcerated women - and, at the same time, on what he calls his own journey of redemption.

In 2004, McGreevey fell from grace with a thud, resigning office as he famously declared, "I am a gay American." The married governor quit because an ex-lover - a man McGreevey hired as a top security aide in the wake of 9/11 - was blackmailing him with a threatened sexual harassment suit.

Now, McGreevey and the women he works with at the Hudson County Correctional Institution are the subjects of a documentary by Alexandra Pelosi, Fall to Grace, scheduled to air Thursday on HBO.

"It is actually that fall which enabled me to be open to God's grace in my life," McGreevey, 55, said Monday in an interview. "Up to that point I was driven more by a sense of self - ego and self-preservation - rather than service." He said he was addicted to the adulation and approval that comes with high office; politics had become his "third rail."

Pelosi, 42, daughter of the House minority leader, said she was drawn by the "tabloid fodder" of McGreevey's coming out, his study for a divinity degree and (so far) unsuccessful bid to be ordained an Episcopal priest, and his ugly divorce from Dina Matos, who accused him of fraud and demanded enough money to be kept in the style to which she had grown accustomed as New Jersey's first lady.

"I'm always fascinated by the real people behind the caricature in the tabloids," Pelosi said.

But McGreevey and his partner, money manager Mark O'Donnell, told her over lunch that they weren't interested in her movie idea.

"They said, 'Please leave us alone, no thank you, have a nice life,' " Pelosi said. "I called Jim back a little later and said, 'I appreciate you don't want to talk to me,' but I was interested in what he was doing. He invited me to jail. He's a very open guy."

What followed was an odd courtship dance. Pelosi kept showing up, collecting footage with a handheld camera. The women in McGreevey's jail group came to trust her more and more, and he kept inviting her places, all without formally agreeing to the project.

"I made friends with them. I don't think they ever thought that when I was filming it was going to lead to a documentary - you need boom mikes, lights, big cameras, people," Pelosi said. "I knew in the end I could show the theme of redemption through these women in jail. ... Everybody deserves forgiveness." McGreevey, she said, had credibility with the women as he prayed with them and talked to them about "not being defined by the worst things that happen to us."

Pelosi got releases from McGreevey and the women featured in the movie, but O'Donnell never agreed and is not thrilled, the former governor said.

McGreevey, who converted from the Catholicism of his birth to the Episcopalian faith, was steered toward working with offenders by a seminary dean, and has found a new calling.

He said he danced close to his personal third rail and embraced the movie for the sake of the women prisoners.

"To me, the great blessing would be if people who take the time to watch the documentary walk away with a different view of the women behind those high concrete walls that surround the prisons in America," McGreevey said. "These are people with value, human beings like us, yearning to live healthier lives."

He praised the current incumbent, Gov. Christie, for expanding drug and alcohol treatment for prisoners and special drug courts for nonviolent offenders.

As to Christie's performance in office or future as a national candidate, McGreevey demurred. "Look," he said, "I'm far removed from politics."

And what about his own future? Would a man who once had visions of running for president ever attempt a political comeback?

McGreevey said no. "It's healthier for me to be in this place."

The voters might well agree.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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