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The Convert

Isolated at Tyco, Belnick also lost touch with most of his old Paul, Weiss colleagues, as if he’d closed that chapter. “It was a horrible year,” says Belnick. He was used to collecting praise and thrived on that. At Tyco, he hardly ever saw his boss. “I was the lone man on an island writing out policies,” he says.

Soon, though, Belnick found companionship in an intensely bound new community, and in particular with the figure at its center: C. John McCloskey, a former Merrill Lynch stockbroker who’d become an Opus Dei priest. The sect, which believes that holiness is possible in the workplace—even for lawyers—has sometimes been accused of secretiveness. But McCloskey is an open book. He’s cheerful, thoughtful in conversation, ending sentences with an upturned hmm. Then there’s his Website. There, anyone can learn that he’s an unusual combination of Ivy League–ness (Columbia grad, strong interest in squash), religious conservative, and aggressive evangelist. “Priests,” he says, “are the Navy seals of the Catholic Church.”

McCloskey’s flowing black cassock, his self-assured orthodoxy, wouldn’t seem to recommend him as spiritual comfort to a Jewish New York lawyer in the midst of a rough patch. Plus, Belnick, once a Democrat, had recently been a leader of a firm that supported liberal causes—Paul, Weiss represented Planned Parenthood pro bono. And Belnick, as he’d say later, “wasn’t mad at anyone. I loved Judaism, still do, always will.”

But McCloskey’s specialty was to convert wealthy and, often, it seemed, Jewish people. He’d converted financier Lew Lehrman, TV host Lawrence Kudlow, columnist Robert Novak, and Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League. “C. John the Baptizer,” Belnick would call him.

For McCloskey, the key is patience and, he adds, an individualized plan. Converting Nathanson took eight years. Belnick’s was faster. Around 1996, Belnick says he felt a “tug” to learn more about Roman Catholicism. One impetus was Maureen Hartman, wife of his good friend David Hartman, the former host of Good Morning America. (They met through their kids’ private school.) She spoke of Catholicism to Belnick, who suddenly found he wanted to be in a church.

I have got to find out whether I am having a religious breakdown, Belnick thought. Belnick searched online for a priest, found one, then found another. Mistakenly he e-mailed Father McCloskey, who quickly responded.

McCloskey had hatched a theory about American men: They’d lost the ability to maintain, as he put it, “virile” male friendships. “Friendship Deficit Syndrome,” he called it. He believed that male friendship—true friendship—would prove a great tool in what McCloskey occasionally called “the evangelization business.”

Soon, Mccloskey and Belnick were meeting at least once a month. Belnick found him charming, funny, intelligent. McCloskey, 50, proved a great encourager—“I love to affirm,” he says—and, says Belnick, “a great friend.” McCloskey quickly incorporated Belnick into his circle of conservative Catholic friends, including Lehrman and Bowie Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner.

Belnick invited his new friends to pray for him and, in turn, adopted their conservative politics. (He joined them in calling New York City “Sodom and Gomorrah.”) Robert Best, another McCloskey friend, who runs the anti-abortion Culture of Life Foundation, invited Belnick to join the board of directors. “Bob Best is pure love,” Belnick would say. He had cause. It was Best who would help arrange Belnick’s exhilarating visit to the pope. “Randi and I have had a quick glimpse (and me a foretaste) of heaven,” reported Belnick after the encounter.

Belnick became an Opus Dei cooperator, an official devotee. As Belnick considered conversion, McCloskey sent him to Nathanson, who recalls, “He wanted to know, did I regret leaving the Jewish community?” In particular, Belnick worried about his elderly Jewish parents. “I didn’t think they needed that kind of tsuris,” says Belnick, who resolved not to tell them. Belnick also worried about his wife’s reaction. “I didn’t get it,” she says. “I still don’t.” In fact, Randy Belnick, his wife of almost 30 years, said she didn’t want to hear any more about it. Belnick respected her wishes until February 28, 2000, the night before he was scheduled to convert. It was near 2 a.m. They were in bed, but Belnick couldn’t sleep. “We’ve never had secrets from each other,” he says.

Belnick awakened his wife and broke the news.

“You’re telling me at 2 a.m. that you’re going to do one of the major changes in our lives ten hours from now?” she said.

“She was so upset, I called it off,” explains Belnick. At 6:47 a.m., he wrote to McCloskey: “My heart is broken. But all I can believe now is that the Holy Spirit is telling me that I cannot do this without Randy’s explicit consent . . . The only good news is that . . . she now realizes how much this means to me and that she wants time to think about it and try to get adjusted to it.”

At lunch that day, he said to his wife, “I won’t do it until you tell me I can set a date.”

“I may tell you ‘never,’ ” Randy responded.

“Let’s not think about that,” said Belnick.

Belnick began donating money. Cornell and Columbia were still the major recipients, but now he included Catholic causes, including the Culture of Life Foundation and Thomas Aquinas College. Of course, he donated to Opus Dei projects, though not, in total, more than $10,000, says McCloskey. The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d donated “$2M”—or, the Journal said, “two million dollars”—to Opus Dei, but that wasn’t true. “I’m not crazy,” says Belnick. The “M,” he says, was the Roman numeral that means thousand. That donation to Opus Dei was $2,000, a figure confirmed by a source who viewed Belnick’s tax returns.

Around that time, Belnick traveled continually for Tyco—the company had offices around the world. He stayed in constant e-mail communication, shooting off messages at all hours. In 2000, Randy moved with their high-school-age son to the Park City house. Belnick had been elated to enter the second-home club. “It felt good,” he said. He got there as often as possible, but e-mailed frequently. He also e-mailed the kids, Tyco personnel, outside lawyers, speakers for a pre-law course he taught at his beloved Cornell.