Times Union [Albany NY]
November 18, 2022
By Brendan Lyons
“I hope and pray I will live long enough to see my name cleared once and for all,” Albany bishop emeritus said of the child sex abuse allegations he faces
Howard J. Hubbard, who served as bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany for 37 years, has formally asked the Vatican to permanently remove him from being a member of the clergy.
Hubbard’s request comes as he is facing multiple lawsuits filed under New York’s Child Victims Act that accuse him of child sexual abuse — allegations that he has denied — and of systematically shielding other priests accused of sexual abuse.
“I had hoped that in my retirement I might be able to continue to serve our community as a priest,” Hubbard said in a statement released Friday. “I am not able to do so, however, because of a church policy that prohibits any priest accused of sexual abuse from functioning publicly as a priest, even if the allegations are false, as they are in my case.”
The 84-year-old noted that he implemented the policy that has deprived him of “the single greatest joy of my life — serving our community as a Catholic priest in my retirement years.”
Read Hubbard’s full statement:
Hubbard’s nearly four decades as bishop marked the longest tenure of any leader in the history of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. He submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Francis when he reached the mandated age of 75; on Feb. 11, 2014, the Vatican announced it had been accepted.
Hubbard, who suffered a stroke over the summer, said he had recently “asked the Vatican for relief from my obligations as a priest and permission to return to the lay state. In whatever time I have left on this Earth, I hope to be able to serve God and the people of our community as a lay person.”
The bishop emeritus said he will continue to fight the abuse lawsuits in court.
“I hope and pray I will live long enough to see my name cleared once and for all,” he said. “While the pain that I have felt as an individual falsely accused is great, it can never approach the devastation experienced by victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy or others in a position of authority in our society. I also continue to pray daily for the children, adults and families who have suffered that they will experience healing and reconciliation.”
Before becoming bishop in 1977, Hubbard was known as a “street priest” for his efforts in the city’s South End helping individuals find housing, collecting food donations and assisting those with drug and alcohol addictions. His biography on the diocese’s website notes that he founded Providence House and Hope House, one a storefront crisis intervention center, the other a residential recovery program for adults and teens struggling with addictions.
But Hubbard also has faced fierce criticism for the diocese’s handling of sexual abuse allegations when he was heading it, including shuffling priests accused of child sexual abuse in and out of treatment programs without alerting the public or congregations. In some instances, priests who were returned to ministry went on to sexually abuse other children.
Cynthia S. LaFave, an attorney handling dozens of Child Victims Act lawsuits filed against the Albany diocese, said that Hubbard’s removal from the clerical state is “not only justified but necessary.”
“This signals to survivors that their voices are being heard. This is such an integral part of healing, long overdue,” she continued. “Without the Child Victims Act, without the courage that the survivors have shown, this would never have happened. It was not one, nor two, but a community of survivors who came forward to tell their truth about the abuse forced on them by Bishop Hubbard. This is a day of vindication.”
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who succeeded Hubbard as bishop, issued a statement in response to Hubbard’s request: “Whatever considerations and circumstances may have led to this decision, most probably after a difficult process of discernment, we offer him our prayers and our hopes for happiness and well-being,” it reads. “This news may be shocking and painful for clergy and laypersons who know and love Bishop Hubbard and have appreciated his many years of ministry. I offer Bishop Hubbard my own prayers and fraternal assistance.”
The Archdiocese of New York has been waging a legal battle to block the disclosure of more than 1,400 pages of internal records related to its investigations of Hubbard.
The records are being sought in connection with a Child Victims Act case filed against Hubbard, the Albany diocese and deceased former priest Francis P. Melfe, who like Hubbard is a target of multiple child sexual abuse claims.
The archdiocese’s records on the former bishop were created under disciplinary procedures known as “Vos Estis” that were mandated by Pope Francis in 2019 to govern the investigations of child sexual abuse allegations against bishops or other church superiors. The pope’s mandate also included examinations of any alleged interference with investigations of abuse by a bishop.
The attorneys for the archdiocese are asserting in arguments filed in state Supreme Court that the records are protected from disclosure under the First Amendment. They contend the “production and review of such documents would necessarily excessively entangle the court in matters of internal church governance and call into question the Archdiocese and Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan’s internal processes in exclusively ecclesiastical matters governed by religious law.”
The archdiocese’s motion remains pending in state Supreme Court in Albany. It’s unclear whether the legal battle had any role in Hubbard’s decision to request to be laicized, or what the sealed records may reveal.
The archdiocese’s legal efforts to keep secret its internal files on Hubbard follow similar court battles waged by the Albany diocese to not release its files documenting the handling of pedophilia allegations leveled against priests and others.
In June, the Times Union reported the allegations of two brothers who grew up in Warren County in a devout Catholic family and alleged that Gary Mercure, a former priest in their childhood parish who was later convicted of raping young boys in Massachusetts, had sexually abused them on multiple occasions over a period of years and that Hubbard took part in some of the assaults.
The men, now in their 40s, for the first time publicly asserted that Mercure and Hubbard sexually abused the older brother on multiple occasions during encounters at Lake George motels, in the rectory of Our Lady of Annunciation in Queensbury, and in Mercure’s vehicle in Albany.
“The bishop forcefully denies the allegations; he has never abused these gentlemen, never met these gentlemen, never abused anyone, whether it be a minor or an adult,” Terence P. O’Connor, whose firm is representing Hubbard in the sexual abuse cases, said in June.
Those new allegations increased the number of individuals accusing Hubbard of sexual abuse to at least nine — seven of whom have filed lawsuits against the former bishop, the Catholic church or the Albany diocese. All were filed under New York’s Child Victims Act, which lifted the statute of limitations for two years to give alleged victims the opportunity to sue their abusers or the institutions that may have harbored them.
Hubbard’s handling of sexual abuse in the diocese as bishop has faced further scrutiny when it was revealed that he had testified under oath in a deposition last year that he and the diocese systematically concealed incidents of child sexual abuse and did not alert law enforcement agencies to avoid scandal and preserve “respect for the priesthood.”
The former bishop also confirmed that many of the records documenting the sexual abuse allegations were kept in secret files that only he and other top church officials could access. He said the “sealed” files included allegations of abuse as well as records on priests accused of other forms of wrongdoing, such as financial misconduct or alcohol abuse.
The deposition, which was released after attorneys removed the names of alleged victims, confirmed the efforts by the former bishop and the diocese to conceal incidents of sexual abuse when Hubbard was bishop of the 14-county district.
“There was a sense in those days that these crimes should be handled with a minimum of publicity that might re-victimize a minor,” Hubbard had said, adding that church leaders’ “failure to notify the parish and the public when a priest was removed or restored was a mistake.”
Jeff Anderson, an attorney whose law firm also is handling dozens of lawsuits filed against Hubbard, the Albany diocese or its former priests, said he believes Hubbard’s extraordinary request is a “less controversial” way to be removed from the clerical state if the Vatican is already on a path to laicizing him. He believes Hubbard’s decision was prompted by the revelations in the court cases that documented his alleged mishandling of sexual abuse cases.
“It’s a testament to the public-policy power of the statute of limitations reform that gave the survivors — for the first time in New York — a voice and an ability to do something about it by exposing their offenders and those that protected them,” Anderson said. “Hubbard now got scrutiny by the survivors and … it allowed us to put him under oath, make him testify, required the diocese to disclose their secrets and their files and showed him to be exactly what he is: a serial offender and somebody who protected offenders for four decades.”