Editorial: The bad shepherds

Times Union [Albany NY]

August 20, 2021

Albany’s ex-bishop acknowledges a longstanding policy that enabled serial sexual abuse.

It’s time for the diocese to truly reckon with its past, for its own sake as well as victims’.


In the Catholic tradition, confession is more than a virtue that is good for the soul; it is a sacrament. Whether it’s prompted by genuine contrition or the simple reality that you’ve been found out, confession is also viewed favorably within the secular legal system.

Which makes it doubly good that Albany Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard recently stated in straightforward manner what has been known for years by those who follow the regional diocese’s response to allegations of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and church staff: The diocese for far too long didn’t do nearly enough to protect the most vulnerable members of its flock.

The diocese’s common practice in the 1970s and 1980s for handling sexual misconduct allegations was to remove priests from ministry temporarily and send them for counseling and treatment, the former bishop told reporter Edward McKinley, and wrote in a recent commentary. They were returned to work if a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist determined them capable of resuming ministry without reoffending. “The professional advice we received was well-intended but flawed, and I deeply regret that we followed it,” the former bishop says.

It’s hard to see how this policy was “well-intended” — its clear intent was to cover up alleged abuse, minimize the chances of more victims coming forward, and protect the diocese’s reputation. Calling it “flawed” is a considerable understatement. Child molestation is a criminal act. Church elders’ first call should have been to the police.

Bishop Emeritus Hubbard’s attorney disputes the notion that this arrangement amounted to a cover-up — as if sending an accused priest off for treatment was by itself a sufficient response. This is akin to Richard Nixon claiming that the Watergate scandal wasn’t covered up because the conspirators all received reprimands.

This is not merely a problem from the distant past. As the Times Union’s Chris Churchill recently reported, a priest who served three regional churches stepped back from his duties only after parishioners discovered that he had been named in an abuse suit filed in January. The diocese defended its failure to take action by noting that its current policy dictates the launch of an internal investigation only if it receives a complaint directly.

What is this, a game of Simon Says? Whether the priest is innocent or guilty is a matter for a court to determine, but whether he remains active while the allegations are being examined is the diocese’s responsibility.

The “look-back window” created by the Child Victims Act closed on Aug. 14. In its two-year term, religious entities as well as scouting groups and schools have been hit with lawsuits brought by alleged victims who have in many cases waited decades to have their shot at justice. Those claims will likely take several more years to resolve.

The legal process will, no doubt, complicate what the Albany Diocese and other large institutions need to embark on: a more thorough process of truth-telling about what the diocese knew, when it knew it, and what it failed to do with that knowledge.