Jane Belford calls herself a “habitual volunteer.”
She was a partner at the large law firm Foley & Lardner around 1990 when she left to spend more time with her young son. But she couldn’t resist taking up major volunteer projects to help the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, including spending a day a week tending to homeless men with AIDS and helping found a pro bono legal network. But her callings merged in 2001, when then-new Washington Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick asked her to be the first woman and layperson to serve as chancellor — the highest ranking job a layperson can hold in a diocese.
Over the next 13 years, Belford guided a significant professionalizing of the archdiocese, which serves 620,000 Catholics in Washington and suburban Maryland. She oversaw the creation of the Office of Child Protection, the expansion of the legal and communications offices, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to Washington, and she was involved in pretty much every major aspect of that period, from the shifting of Catholic schools to the public school system to a tense phase with the D.C. Council after the passage of same-sex marriage.
Known as a superb organizer who always looks perfectly coiffed, Belford, 63, retired from the diocese on Dec. 31. We spoke with her about her tenure:
Q: You’ve always been a devoted, active Catholic. Did you ever think you might wind up working for the church?
A: I had no idea what a chancellor was. I’m a cradle Catholic, lifelong, but like most, you relate to the church through your parish. I was part of a generation of women who were trained to go and have careers and succeed in the secular world.
Q: What does that say about how things have changed during your tenure?
A: I’ve been approached numerous times by women and men who want to work for the church. But when I came of age, most positions at that time were held by priests. The chancellor position didn’t open up [for laypeople] until the 1980s. But people see now how incredibly apparent it is that there are great opportunities for laymen and women inside the church.
Q: How has the archdiocese changed in the 13 years you’ve been there?
A: I see an interest and a desire on the part of people to want to come into our church. Sometimes headlines are people are leaving in droves, but I don’t see that. . . . I see our campus ministries where there are hundreds of students who are hungry for something different and are open to our message — open to wanting to encounter Christ in our lives.
Every week in churches throughout the archdiocese, we are proclaiming a message of charity, a call to peace, to be compassionate, forgiving, joyful, and I think that is at the very least a support system that makes life bearable in what is sometimes a very harsh and demanding environment in which we live. . . . Besides churches and [other houses of worship], where else do people get called to live their life that way?
Q: What were the biggest issues during your tenure?
A: The sex abuse crisis had a devastating impact on our church, I think. Some priests violated the heart of their ministry and the law. Sex abuse of a child is not just a sin but a crime. When I came aboard and had to deal with the recognition of that fact . . . the harm has been immeasurable and the faith of a lot of people, Catholics and non-Catholics, was shattered by it. But having said that, I think generally speaking the strength of our church is, when it finally identifies a problem it works to resolve it. [The archdiocese has] had a policy since 1986 that mandated reporting of allegations of abuse. That was one of the first, if not the first, written policy that existed.
We’ve also created policies and procedures that strengthened our capacity to make good decisions and handle legislative issues — same-sex marriage, the Dream Act, capital punishment, so many public policy issues.
The Holy Father’s visit was a singular and unique experience and one I can recall with great clarity. . . . It was one of the most joyful experiences from my time.
The challenge today is that the church makes such an extraordinary contribution to the common good. What I worry about are efforts that I sometimes see to limit or make harder or hinder our ability to serve the common good. That is a concern for me. I would like to see us do not only what we’re doing now but do more. But increasingly the public policy decisions of our government make that hard. [She mentioned the federal mandate for employers to provide contraception to employees, new requirements that government-supported adoption programs treat same-sex couples equally, failed efforts to secure tax credits in Maryland for donations to parochial school scholarship funds, among other things.]
Q: What was it like being a woman in your position? You are often brought in to help with issues in parishes, for example, which are overseen by priests.
A: I worked at a firm that was mostly men. I became a partner amid a small number of women in 1986, so I sort of know what its like to work in a male-oriented culture. What I found interesting working in the church is women have fabulous opportunities. People ask about being ordained — there’s a difference between a career and a vocation. No one has a right to receive a call [to be a priest]. It’s from God. I accept that teaching. And it’s reserved to men, and I’m not concerned about it. Because from my perspective there are so many ways to serve. Cardinal [Donald] Wuerl’s senior financial adviser is a woman, the head of communications is a woman, his spokesperson is a woman, his general counsel is a woman. . . . With regard to jobs and leadership, Cardinal Wuerl [the current archbishop] probably has more women in his cabinet than President Obama.