Times Union [Albany NY]
August 13, 2021
By Bishop Howard Hubbard
The Times Union recently published a story that said I had acknowledged that the Albany Diocese covered up sexual abuse by priests by sending them to nationally accredited treatment facilities rather than reporting the allegations to local law enforcement authorities. The truth, as always, is more complicated.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when an allegation of sexual misconduct against a priest was received, the common practice in the Albany Diocese and elsewhere was to remove the priest from ministry and send him for counseling and treatment. Only when a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist determined the priest was capable of returning to ministry without reoffending did we consider placing him back in ministry. While most priests who were so treated did not reoffend, it did not always work. We as a society now better understand the compulsive, addictive nature of sexual abuse of minors.
Our failure to notify the parish and the public when a priest was removed or restored was a mistake. Far better is the policy the Albany Diocese adopted of notifying law enforcement authorities upon receipt of an allegation, with full disclosure to the parish community and the public.
Most of the allegations received in the 1970s and ’80s involved misconduct that was well beyond criminal and civil statutes of limitations. We advised survivors and their families of the option of bringing the matter to the authorities themselves, and we would cooperate with the law enforcement process. Never did we deter victims from doing this.
The diocese, however, did not take the initiative to report the allegations to criminal authorities partially because, in a majority of the cases, the victims themselves did not want to make the matter public and many times sought confidentiality through their attorneys. Further, in several of the incidents, the matter was brought to the diocese’s attention by criminal or civil authorities themselves. There was a sense in those days that these crimes should be handled with a minimum of publicity that might re-victimize a minor. While this approach was well-intended, it was wrong.
Beginning in the 1980s, the diocese offered counseling for survivors and their families, and in some cases settlements for emotional and psychological damages. Early on, these settlements included confidentiality agreements, though their use ended more than 20 years ago, a policy later adopted nationally by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
We also recognized the benefit of involving lay people in the oversight of these matters. In 1993, I created the Albany Diocese Sexual Misconduct Review Board, made up largely of lay experts in the field, to advise the diocese on our overall approach to addressing allegations. It oversaw investigations of allegations against priests, which were conducted by retired senior law enforcement officers. We also proactively reached out to the district attorneys in the diocese’s 14 counties to establish protocols for reporting abuse allegations to them.
We, along with other dioceses throughout the country, took many other steps — including putting into place guidelines about sexual misconduct; conducting workshops, seminars and training for clergy, staff and volunteers on standards of behavior; creating a counseling system for survivors; hiring a Victim’s Assistance Coordinator; and doing background checks on all staff and volunteers.
In 2004, we established an independent mediation program, developed and overseen by retired Court of Appeals Judge Howard Levine, to compensate victims of clergy sex abuse, long before any other diocese in the state and few in the country had done so. Over the two years of its operation, it provided about $3 million in compensation to more than 40 survivors.
We also initiated an aggressive program to root out from among those looking to enter the priesthood individuals unsuited to a position of sacred trust. Acceptance into the seminary requires multiple references, a criminal background check, extensive psychological testing and interviews by three psychologists. Once admitted, candidates for the priesthood are regularly monitored and evaluated throughout their five- to six-year training and offered courses and programs that, decades ago, would have been considered taboo — for example, in sexuality, addiction and the struggle to be celibate.
Where we fell short was in our failure to fully understand the impacts on victims and survivors.
While we recognized that sexual abuse of a minor was a heinous crime and morally reprehensible, we did not understand, as early as I wish we had, the devastating and lifelong consequences of this violation of sacred trust. Beyond the immediate harm, clergy sexual misconduct can lead to lifelong problems for victims with trust, intimacy and sexuality. They may feel shame and self-loathing. They are frequently reluctant to share their pain and consequently suffer the trauma alone, often filled with rage, anger, hopelessness and despair. When left untreated, these deep wounds can result in low self-esteem, poor interpersonal relationships, substance abuse and suicide. Also, since the perpetrator was a trusted representative of the church, victims tend to identify his behavior with the church itself, and that frequently leads to the loss of faith and even to the rejection of God.
While we never condoned, ignored or took lightly sexual abuse of minors, we did not respond as quickly, as knowledgeably and as compassionately as we should have, and for that I am sincerely sorry. My most fervent prayer each day is that victim/survivors and their families will find healing, reconciliation and peace in God’s love and that we as a church and a society will learn from this tragedy.
Howard J. Hubbard is bishop emeritus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.