Albany Bishop Faces Abuse Allegations
Hubbard Denies Charges Some Call Questionable; Diocese Hires Investigator
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
National Catholic Reporter [Albany NY]
March 19, 2004
A pair of ghosts and a former prostitute have made charges of sexual improprieties against Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard, and in the current climate of sensitivity to clergy sex abuse, this has been enough to keep the 65-year-old bishop in the center of media attention he’d rather avoid.
Hubbard has been involved on all sides of the clergy sex abuse scandals and now finds himself right in the middle of it. In the wake of a series of allegations against the bishop, the diocese has hired former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to investigate and report to the public.
The first charge came Feb. 4 when Andrew Zalay of California held a news conference in Albany to charge that his brother, Thomas, before committing suicide in 1978, wrote a note about having an affair with a bishop named Howard. The note was typewritten and unsigned, as well as undated. Hubbard hurried home from Florida to deny the Zalay allegation.
Two days later, 40-year-old Anthony Bonneau held a news conference and charged that the bishop had paid him for sex nearly 30 years ago when Bonneau was a homeless teenager living in an Albany park adjoining the chancery.
The following week, Fr. John Minkler, chaplain at the Veterans Hospital in Albany, turned up dead at home after being identified publicly as the author of a 1995 letter to New York Cardinal John O’Connor implicating Hubbard in sexual relationships with two other priests. Before his death, which is presumed to be a suicide, Minkler denied in a letter, in a conversation with a TV reporter, and to Hubbard that he was the author of the letter. According to John Aretakis, the lawyer who leaked the letter to the press, the letter was signed “Henry,” which Aretakis said was Minkler’s code name. Others who have seen the letter say the signature is indecipherable.
Aretakis, the common thread behind these accusations, has been well known to diocesan officials for nearly a decade. He brokered the 1996 payment of nearly $1 million to a victim of Albany priest Mark Haight, whom Hubbard had allowed to continue in ministry despite a previous instance of abuse. That settlement included a confidentiality agreement that Aretakis has since been accused of violating. Aretakis will not say how many lawsuits he has filed against the diocese. Diocesan officials refer to “dozens.”
In an interview, Aretakis maintained that he has known of Hubbard’s sexual activities for years but only went public after Hubbard’s denial of Zalay’s charge. He claims that numerous witnesses have told him that Hubbard frequently visited male prostitutes, but declined to name a single witness.
“When these people are ready to talk,” said the media-savvy lawyer, “it will be on Page B1 of The New York Times.”
In the wake of these episodes, Hubbard pronounced his conscience was clear, offered to take a polygraph test, and asked the Albany County district attorney to investigate charges. The district attorney declined, since no crime was alleged in the Zalay case and the statute of limitations had run out in the Bonneau case. (A longtime associate of Hubbard’s laughed at the allegations of an open-air tryst, noting that the joke in the diocese was that Hubbard “wouldn’t even know the words to use to ask [for sex].”)
The diocese then hired White, who prosecuted John Gotti and the World Trade Center bombers. White will be paid by the diocese but maintains that she alone will determine the scope of her investigation and will publish her findings independently. The Albany County coroner is investigating the death of Minkler.
In an extraordinary news conference carried live on Albany TV, Hubbard spoke in terms reminiscent of when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused of sexual activity by a seminarian who later recanted.
“I stand before you today,” said Hubbard, “with a clear conscience. I am at peace with God and within myself because there is absolutely no truth to the allegations that have been leveled against me. I do not know Thomas Zalay. I have never had any relationship with Thomas Zalay. I have never sexually abused anyone of any age. I have honored my vow of celibacy.”
It was this denial, according to Aretakis, that caused Bonneau two sleepless nights and eventually led Bonneau to call Aretakis’ law office and ask to make his story public. (Bonneau declined to be interviewed and referred all questions to Aretakis.)
The accusations against the soft-spoken Hubbard, who has long been a target of conservative Catholics, unleashed a feeding frenzy among his critics and an avalanche of support within the diocese he has led since 1978.
His years as a street priest in Albany’s south end and decades of advocacy for workers’ rights and women’s rights have built him a reputation not easily tarnished. Two weeks after the first charges were made, nearly 600 people came to a five-hour vigil at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in support of the bishop. Other parishes held spontaneous vigils of support as well.
“We are the people in the pews,” said Roger Markovics, a cathedral parishioner who has known Hubbard for more than 30 years. “And we don’t believe these accusations.” He called Hubbard a “rare person. We used the word integrity too often, but he really is a person of integrity. There’s not too many people I admire they way I admire him.”
Hubbard was among the leaders in the bishops’ conference opposed to the adoption of the “zero tolerance” policy on sexually abusive priests, but since its adoption has removed six priests and been among the first in the nation to release its audit of sexual abuse. Albany’s rate was 6.5 percent, higher than the national average of 4 percent of priests who abused children.
Hubbard, among the last appointees of Pope Paul VI to remain in office in New York, has long been seen as liberal and open-minded. He has long been the target of right-wing elements in the church, particularly The Wanderer, a weekly publication, and the group Catholics United for the Faith.
The Albany district attorney has found no grounds for criminal prosecution. Some have suggested that Hubbard bring a defamation case in order to clear his name, but thus far the bishop has resisted.
“It’s like shadow boxing,” said Markovics. “The allegations are so dubious and questionable, but how do you even investigate something from 30 years ago, when one person is dead and another is so shady?”
Asked if the bishop should be suspended while the investigation goes forward, Fr. Kenneth Doyle, diocesan chancellor for communications, said that suspension is warranted when there is a credible claim of abuse. “We would be concerned if there were any factual basis for these charges, but there has been no evidence produced in this case.”
The feeling of many was expressed in a letter to the Albany Times Union from Ed Bloch, a colleague of Hubbard who works with the Interfaith Alliance.
“If Bishop Hubbard states, as he has, that he has never violated his oath of celibacy, I know of a certainty, with my moral life at stake, that this is the truth.”
In the meantime, said diocesan spokesperson Ken Goldfarb, the bishop “wants to get back to serving the diocese.”
Ed Griffin-Nolan is a freelance writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.