Conversion, Indictment and Acquittal on Wall Street

Mark Belnick has his freedom back.

In mid-July, two years after his indictment, Belnick, the former general counsel for Tyco International, was acquitted on 14 counts of felony and misdemeanor financial misconduct.

A former devout Jew, Belnick converted to the Catholic Church in the year 2000. He currently serves on the Board of Governors of Thomas Aquinas College. He spoke recently with Register staff writer Tim Drake from his home in Park City, Utah, about his conversion and his acquittal.

What leads a New Jersey Jew to consider Catholicism?

I grew up as an orthodox Jew. My father worked very, very hard to support us. During the week, I didn't see him much because he would get home late from work. That made the weekend particularly special because I knew that I would get to spend Friday night and Saturday — the Sabbath — with him. One of my fondest memories growing up was walking to the synagogue, which we did rain or shine, on Friday nights and Saturday mornings and back on Saturday afternoons.

That was sacred time I spent with my father.

For reasons I do not understand, even as a teen-ager, I was always interested in religion, especially Roman Catholicism. Once in a while, I would sneak into a Catholic Mass in our town. I was drawn to the liturgy. I loved the great Masses such as Mozart, Beethoven and Britten. When Pope John XXIII became pope, I became a great fan of his. I had a small picture of him hanging in my bedroom at home. My parents laughed about it, but never in a mocking way. I went on to college and law school and 20 years of law practice. While the interest was still there, I wasn't pursuing anything. In fact, I was elected the president of the largest Jewish synagogue in Westchester, N.Y., for four terms.

In 1997, I purchased a treadmill to work off some of my blubber. To reduce treadmill boredom, I put a television in the basement. One day, as I'm clicking through the cable channels, EWTN comes on.

I stop clicking.

Lo and behold, a Mass is being broadcast, and it all comes back to me. After the Mass, some terrific programming came on. Thanks to EWTN, I lost a lot of weight. But more importantly, the seeds of Catholicism lying dormant in me suddenly began to sprout. I would go on the treadmill in the morning and then again after supper. I could have watched EWTN all day. I was eager to learn more and more. I was ordering books and reading like crazy. It was a feverish pitch.

After six to seven months of this, I decided I needed to speak to a priest. I needed to find out if I was going through some great intellectual stimulation, or whether something else was going on.

That had to be difficult for a devout Jew.

Imagine the most devout Catholic you know showing up at your door and saying, “I'm Jewish.” I couldn't let anyone know what I was going through. So, I went onto the Internet and discovered Father John Trigilio.

I emailed him and asked if he would engage me in dialogue. He said, “Sure,” so I e-mailed him. While surfing the Internet, I also came across Father C. John McCloskey's web page. He had also attended Columbia. He had been a stockbroker. He was living in Princeton. So I wrote down his e-mail and made a note to one day get in touch with him.

A couple of weeks after writing to Father Trigilio, I hadn't heard anything back from him, so I pulled out Father McCloskey's e-mail address thinking it was Father Trigilio's and wrote to ask if he had received my e-mail. Father McCloskey wrote to say that I had confused Father Trigilio with himself, but based on my e-mail, he said that he would be happy to speak with me.

Thus began my relationship with Father McCloskey. We began to meet monthly and e-mailed each other frequently, often several times daily. He also put me in touch with other good Catholics and close friends of his such as Lew Lehrman, Bowie Kuhn, Bernie Nathanson and [Register columnist] George Sim Johnston.

Was there a specific turning point for you?

By late 1998, I knew that this was no limited intellectual interest. As if the Holy Spirit were not enough, the combination of the Holy Spirit and Father C. John McCloskey was an irresistible team. When the Holy Spirit works through Father McCloskey, it's like the Super Bowl.

By late 1998, early 1999, I was meeting and studying weekly with Sim Johnston (author of Did Darwin Get It Right?). We were going through the Catechism and would have many deep theological discussions.

They were the highlight of the week for me. There were many times when Sim would say something from the Gospels that would spark a connection in my mind to one of the five books of Moses, the Torah, the psalms or the prophets. He found the connections fascinating and talked of how they tied in with Catholic doctrine or scriptural exegesis. When you put all that together, you have true joy, true good news. I was also doing a great deal of spiritual reading, going on retreats and remaining in constant touch with Father John.

Eventually, the evidence was overwhelming in my mind that the truth to which Judaism pointed was Catholicism. It completes Judaism. I don't think one can fully understand, appreciate or fully receive the benefit of Catholicism without understanding the Torah, psalms and prophets. So much of what we believe as Catholics is foretold in those books. They are as alive as the Gospels.

When you read the Gospels in the light of the books that preceded them, you are indeed reading them in the light. If you don't, you're reading them in the dark.

How did your wife accept the news of your conversion?

My wife knew everything from the beginning, when she found out about EWTN.

She said, “It's great if it keeps you on the treadmill. More power to you!”

She had no reaction when I met with Father McCloskey. At one point, I told her, “I'm falling in love … not with another woman, but with the Catholic Church.” She knows that I have a lot of interests and that when something grabs my interest, I really plunge into it. She thought this was another one of those interests, and said, “It will pass.”

There came a point when I was so serious that I wanted to be baptized. When she learned that, she said, “I married a Jewish man. You're changing the rules in the middle of the game. I'm so unnerved and sick at heart about this, I don't want you to talk to me about it anymore.”

So I didn't, but I fixed a date for the baptism. It was scheduled for February 2000.

Randy, my wife, was opposed. I called the whole thing off the intended morning of my baptism, and I told Randy, “I will not set a date without your consent.”

She said, “You know, I may never consent.”

“Let's not talk about that,” I said. About a month and a half later, we were in our home reading on a Friday night.

Randy said, “Okay, do it.”

I said, “Do it?”

“Get baptized, become a Catholic,” she responded.

“What brought this on?” I asked.

“I've been thinking about it for days and thinking, how can I deprive you of this? This is something you really believe in. It hurts me to the extent that I'm still Jewish and you'll be Catholic, but I know how badly you want this.”

I was ecstatic. I waited until the following Monday, and when she woke up, I asked her if she was still okay with it. She was. I called Father McCloskey, and we set a date for April 25, 2000, at St. Thomas More Church in Manhattan. She told me that she wasn't going to attend the ceremony, but without me knowing it, she was planning on attending.

Before the ceremony, I looked to see if she was there. She wasn't. She was stuck in traffic. Then, just before I was to receive the Eucharist for the first time, there, sitting in the back row, was Randy. A chill came over me.

Afterward, we had a wonderful lunch and Randy had a thoroughly good time. She told me, “There was a young priest there who I really liked. I wouldn't mind talking with him again.” It was Father McCloskey.

I told her, “If you wouldn't mind talking to him, I'm sure he wouldn't mind talking to you.”

In your financial misconduct case, did the prosecution attempt to use your conversion against you?

The fact that I had converted played a role in the way that the prosecutors tried to use it. They used it in the press. They tried to bring it up in court, but were unsuccessful.

The very fact that they tried to bring it up tells a story. What did my conversion have to do with the case?

What was it like facing the prospect of 25 years in prison? Is life different now?

It was a nightmare beyond description. Since the acquittal, every day seems more important.

Freedom, which too many Americans take for granted, including me, I no longer take for granted. I tried not to think about prison too much.

I prayed with confidence that the system would work and that I would be acquitted. Sometimes, while sitting in church at Mass on Sunday, the thought would cross my mind that I might not be able to do this were I convicted. I'm sure prisons have Masses, but they won't be like this. If I want to go on a retreat, I wouldn't be able to do that.

When my daughter spoke of medical school and family day in the spring, or my son spoke of family day at college in the fall, it struck me that I could write these dates on my calendar, but it might soon be irrelevant.

Freedoms to take a walk, pick up a book or be with my family are so precious to me that I will never again take any of them for granted.

Through it all, how did your newfound faith help you?

It was critical. I had been going regularly to Mass long before I was baptized, and I certainly kept that up.

I talked to Jesus. I was taught that one of the great blessings of the Catholic Church was that one could sit down and talk to Jesus. I would do this in front of the Blessed Sacrament and when I was sitting alone. I would complain to Jesus about having to bear this cross of false charges.

I also had a battalion of saints on whom I relied. By the time I was done, I had such a list that I might as well have had Butler's Lives of the Saints in front of me. I also entrusted the trial to Our Lady, remembering that the Holy Spirit had entrusted her to carry the Word Incarnate. I entrusted the trial to her and asked her son to listen to her. I asked her to show that she was my mother, too.

What's next?

I don't know. My family and I have been through a lot. Imagine what your body would look like if someone had been punching you non-stop for 25 months. That's what we look like on the inside. We need rest and relaxation. There is civil litigation with Tyco ahead, but it is frivolous and I can handle that. I expect a favorable outcome. In terms of what I'm going to do with the rest of my life professionally, I want to give back. Whatever I choose, a significant part of it will involve giving back.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.