Albany Bishop Back Battling in the Streets
Hubbard Denies Claims That He Protected Gay Priests, Carried on Romantic Affairs
By Michael Gormley
The Associated Press carried in Ithaca Journal [Albany NY]
Downloaded March 4, 2004
ALBANY -- In 1967, street priest Howard Hubbard fought to create northeastern New York's first heroin rehab clinic. Again and again, he clashed with one of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's top drug policy advisers, outraged at the claim there was a heroin problem in Rocky's capital.
Hubbard won and Hope House was founded.
"This was their No. 1 unmet need," Hubbard said of the inner city residents he served. "So if I was to be faithful to what I was supposed to be doing there, I had a responsibility to help out."
Today, as bishop of Albany's Catholic Diocese, Hubbard is taking a new fight to the street, struggling to save his reputation and protect his church over claims he had homosexual relationships and protected other gay priests. As others ensnared in the nationwide clergy sex abuse scandal have quit or quietly faded from view, Hubbard has stuck his chin out.
"He was a tough guy," said Jerry Connelly, 64, of Albany, a friend and one-time street basketball nemesis of Hubbard who has known the bishop for 40 years. "You can't just be a little lamb ... I think you fight for what you believe."
Hubbard, 65, has answered what he calls humiliating questions at community meetings, prayer groups and newspaper editorial board meetings. He's taken to talk radio and televised press conferences to fend off claims of two gay relationships, one of which allegedly led to a man's suicide 30 years ago.
"I think the bishop is doing the right thing in saying, 'I didn't do anything and you know, damn it, prove it," Connelly said.
On Feb. 15, the scandal deepened when the Rev. John Minkler was found dead in his home near Albany. Minkler was thought by Hubbard opponents to have written a 1995 letter to then-Cardinal John O'Connor portraying Hubbard as part of "a ring of homosexual Albany priests."
Two days before Minkler died of still unrevealed causes, he met with Hubbard to vehemently deny he wrote the letter.
"I felt I had to look people in the eye and tell them from my heart and from my soul, 'I am not guilty of these charges,"' Hubbard said. "I've been faithful to my celibate commitment and I want the matter investigated and to leave no stone unturned to exonerate myself."
After the Albany County district attorney refused Hubbard's request for an investigation and polygraph test because the allegations weren't crimes, Hubbard urged the diocese board to hire former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to launch an independent probe.
The national conservative Roman Catholic Faithful that has been dogging Hubbard for years said Hubbard's public campaign and the White investigation, while "unheard of," are shams.
"What's that saying? 'Thou dost protests too much'?" said Stephen Brady, leader of the Illinois-based Roman Catholic Faithful. The group drew more than 100 supporters -- and nearly as many opponents -- to a raucous rally in February a half-dozen blocks from Hubbard's cathedral in the gut of the state's capital city.
"If somebody falsely accuses you of a heinous act, an immoral act, you deny it and then you let it go," Brady said. "If they persist, you threaten legal action."
"I've heard a lot of them say they encourage an investigation, but never that I know of has a bishop hired ... his own lawyer to investigate himself," Brady said.
At 65 years old, Hubbard is trim and fit, due in part to a full schedule seven days a week and evening jogs on his treadmill while reading or watching "Law & Order" on TV. He usually avoids the trappings of his high office, donning the black cleric shirt and pants of a parish priest and driving himself through an unpublished schedule of events and to celebrate Mass throughout the sprawling, 14-county diocese.
His speaks softly and methodically, training placid blue eyes on the questioner to make sure his answers satisfy.
Hubbard insists he doesn't want to simply silence critics, but to refute their accusations for the sake of his reputation, the priesthood, and the church.
"It is not just an attack upon myself," Hubbard said. "It is an agenda about the direction the church is moving and people want to turn back the clock and renounce the strides we made in ecumenism and religious liberty and liturgical reform and go back to the church of before the second Vatican Council.
"And if they can take down a leader like myself, no matter what means are used, then that's their goal," he said. "I'm not going to allow myself to be used that way ... I'm not going to hide."
His defiant rebuttals are exactly what was expected among some of the 400,000 Catholics under his spiritual care.
"I often wonder why is God doing this?" said Rose Salvo, 75, of Colonie.
"He's just testing our faith and the bishop," she said outside the bishop's home church, the 1848 Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, itself under a massive rebuilding effort.
"They seem to be crucifying him," said her friend, Ann Trombley of Albany. She wore the purple ribbons of Hubbard supporters, standing outside the cathedral's cracked and creaky pews and deteriorated spire on the chilled Sunday after Minkler's death.
"I think the fact that he came out publicly shows the story is false," said Sara Brunell, 30, of Albany. She said she's certain her church will weather the scandal, and remain strong for her 3-year-old daughter Gia.
National conservative Catholic groups took aim at Hubbard years before clergy abuse scandal hit front pages and the conservative weekly, the Wanderer, has regularly targeted the bishop.
When he became America's youngest bishop at 38 and took over his home diocese in 1977, he was in the vanguard of the church's liberal lurch since Vatican II in the 1960s. He helped lead the church into a more open institution with girl altar servers, more laity involvement including women lectors, and ministries to help gay Catholics, among other measures.
Brady says Hubbard as a standard bearer of this liberalism is "evil," engaged in "liturgical abuse," and heresy. He said Hubbard should be removed even if he is innocent of the gay sex claims, because he was one of the bishops that for decades refused to fire pedophile priests.
Last year, after unsuccessfully lobbying for a case-by-case approach at the Dallas meeting of American bishops, Hubbard embraced the harder zero-tolerance line. He dismissed and publicly identified six priests within two week of the Dallas conference.
At the Feb. 22 rally in Albany, Brady quoted scripture: "Better that scandal arise than the truth be suppressed." Brady then led his supporters in the Lord's Prayer to drown out Hubbard supporters.
"All we want are bishops who are real men and princes of the church," Brady said.
Hubbard knows that for many the scandal won't end when he's exonerated.
"There will always be a taint. I will always be associated with this."
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