United in Faith, Divided by Crisis
Bishop Defends Handling of Abuse Claims and Explains What It Would Take for Him to Resign

By Kate Gurnett
Times Union [Albany NY]
April 20, 2003

Asparrow chirps outside the chapel bars at Coxsackie Correctional Facility. Fifty prisoners stand. Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest. They sing in keen, ragged voices. And in our hearts take up thy rest.

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard walks to the altar, a red beacon parting a sea of green uniforms. This Holy Week, he will give the sacrament of confirmation to 25 maximum-security inmates.

Anointing the prisoners, he rests his right hand on each shoulder. A light seems to shine from his eyes into theirs. He asks about their lives.

"He talks like he feels God," said Xavier Vasquez, an 18-year-old gang member serving time for a knife fight in the South Bronx. "I felt like he cared for me. It was both religious and personal."

A former street priest known for his work with the downtrodden, Hubbard has kept interactions like these at the heart of his ministry throughout his 26-year tenure as bishop of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese.

They go a long way toward explaining why the 64-year-old bishop remains popular while other Catholic leaders nationwide have resigned amid a torrent of allegations of sexual abuse by priests. Since the scandal broke, the Albany Diocese has removed 10 of its 360 active and retired priests, involving cases that go back nearly 30 years. It has paid $2.5 million in victim compensation.

But Hubbard's handling of the crisis has drawn criticism. Did he enable abusers? Did he withhold information? Is he too close to priests to truly clean house?

To answer those questions, Hubbard sat down for his first in-depth interview with the Times Union in more than a year.

Q: Why were some priests given clinical treatment and not prosecuted?

A: "If you'll go back to when I first started dealing with the problem, even in the wider society, there wasn't a great deal of knowledge about this. If you look at the curriculum for psychologists and other behavioral scientists back in the mid- to late 1970s, this wasn't even on the agenda. So I think that society as a whole is coming to a greater awareness of this problem."

Q: Is that why you took different steps with different priests?

A: "What we tried to do, prior to the Dallas charter, was a case-by-case review of each allegation. I can say we always took the allegations seriously. And we always followed the advice of professionals. And if they recommended that somebody not be restored to the ministry, they weren't restored. If they were to be restored and there were to be conditions, then those conditions were observed."

Q: Why didn't you immediately remove and prosecute priests who were committing deeply damaging crimes?

A: "I think I have. I announced last year, when this scandal first broke, there had been nine cases that had come to my attention, the majority of whom had been removed but there were still some in ministry. ... And since that time, I've either removed or put on administrative leave those against whom allegations either have been substantiated or that the review board has recommended be placed on administrative leave ... Once it came to my attention, I immediately took action." Where the diocese fell short, Hubbard said, was by failing to notify the community of any past accusations.

Hubbard, who is from Troy, became the nation's youngest bishop, at 38, in 1977. Administering a 14-county, 400,000-member diocese, he crafted a safety net of services for drug addicts, alcoholics, battered women and the poor through agencies such as Hope House and Catholic Charities. He battled the death penalty and led interfaith initiatives. Conservatives have criticized his closing of Catholic schools (down from 88 to 41) and his liberal leanings. But until now, Hubbard faced no major crisis.

Last May, Hubbard apologized in a letter read at each Sunday Mass in the diocese, and announced several policy changes. After the Catholic Bishop's conference last June in Dallas, all churches adopted a zero-tolerance policy for abusers. Today, the diocese refers sexual abuse complaints to the district attorney if they fall within the statute of limitations (generally, up to five years after a victim's 18th birthday). All others are investigated by a retired State Police investigator and reviewed by a panel composed mainly of laypeople. It conducts background checks and training for all staff and volunteers in contact with children.

Still, some question whether the diocese acts quickly enough to remove accused priests.

"The concern is that the cover-ups that occur are similar to the blue wall of silence that we see in police departments," said state Assemblyman John McEneny, D-Albany, sponsor of a bill to add clergy to the list of professionals, including teachers and doctors, who must report suspected child abuse.

"It's no different from 'pass the trash,' when bad teachers would be encouraged to go out and get jobs with other school districts in the 1980s," McEneny said. "Now there are mandated reporters for abusive teachers."

Q: Have you considered resigning?

A: "First of all, it's not something that I could do unilaterally. That would only be done in consultation with the Holy See at the Vatican. They haven't asked me that at all. I will continue to serve the diocese as long as I'm convinced that I can accomplish the mission of the church.

"And if I reach the point where I feel that I cannot, (or if) people who have the responsibilities of advising me say, 'Bishop, you yourself are no longer able to give effective leadership in the diocese,' then the mission of the church is much more important than whether Howard Hubbard stays as diocesan bishop. If I thought it was in the best interests of the church for me to resign as bishop, I would do that."

Q: How do you make amends?

A: "Well, I think first of all, it's important to apologize to the victims. And to the victim's family members. To provide counseling and support to those who have been victimized. And then to set up policies and protocols that ensure that the likelihood of this happening is reduced to zero; as much as humanly possible."

Hubbard said if he had known over the past decades what he knows now, he would have reached out much more aggressively to victims.

"I have a much deeper understanding, especially from the perspective of the victim. Obviously, I always knew that sexual abuse was wrong, morally and ethically and criminally. But I did not have the appreciation I presently have about the extent of the trauma experienced by the victim in terms of the loss of self-esteem, the ability to enter into meaningful relationships with others, the possibility of alcohol and substance abuse developing, the loss of faith, free-floating anger, a sense of shame and guilt."

Q: What exactly is the church's current understanding of sexual abuse?

A: Well, we know it's a crime. We know it's morally unacceptable; those two things are indisputable. In terms of the cause, I think you have to rely on people in that field who are more expert than myself.

"I do believe that there is a continuum of behaviors that are inappropriate. And to lump everybody into the same category as if they all act the same way and they have the same causation, I think, is not a nuanced understanding of the problem. And I believe even behavioral scientists are still learning more and more about the problem." Q: Some priests have expressed concern about colleagues who have been removed. How do you walk the line between taking care of the parishioners, making sure they're not victimized and yet caring for priests who have engaged in this behavior? A: "Well, it's a delicate line to walk. I have to try to be respectful of the rights of all the people involved, the rights of the victims first and foremost. But also to make sure that those who are accused have due process, and if they are removed from ministry, that we try to help them make a transition to the lay state.

"And then I have to be concerned about the common good within the entire community, so I have to balance all three of those rights. It's not an easy balance to strike. And I think that at some point or another, any one of them may feel that I'm not doing enough for them. I just have to do the best I can with the lights I have available to me, with the resources that are at my disposal." At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, the scent of incense rises to the dome of the 150-year-old church. More than 80 priests in ivory vestments sway toward the altar for Chrism Mass, when oils are annointed for use in sacraments in the coming year. Hundreds of Catholics from parishes throughout the diocese stand.

Many have come to see Hubbard.

"I'm behind him 1,000 percent," says Peggy DeCheck, 73, of Germantown. "I think he did the best he could do at the time. Let's face it, sexual abuse (in society) was swept under the rug for years. The school principals didn't want to hear it. The cops didn't want to hear it."

Part of this Mass requires baptized Catholics to renew their commitment to service. It is something parishioners like DeCheck are ready to do. She hopes the scandal will create a more open church with a stronger laity.

"A lot of people feel that way," she said. "If you don't change, you stagnate. Forget the buildings. We are the church. Without us, the buildings don't matter."

Hubbard slowly climbs the circular stairs to the pulpit, but gains strength as he preaches. His voice bounces off the stone pillars as candles flicker in the cavernous cathedral. "It is wonderful to see such a throng of people ... it is a source of great hope and promise."

Local attendance figures indicate there is no exodus of the faithful. A Times Union poll showed nearly 74 percent of Catholics surveyed thought Hubbard did a fair, good or excellent job of handling the crisis.

Q: How is the diocese doing financially? Will you have to sell property? Close schools? Declare bankruptcy?

A: "I don't envision that right now."

(Hubbard said the final collection for this year's Bishop's Appeal fund drive was $6.2 million, about $200,000 shy of projections but a 7.7 percent increase over the previous year.)

Q: How much can the diocese afford to keep paying out?

A: "Well, we have made settlements in the past. We have not determined a policy in terms of settlements prospectively. That's one of the things that our review board is looking at."

Q: Has faith been lost?

A: "Our faith is in God and not in human instruments," Hubbard said. "I think many people continue to have faith in God and trust in God. But they are upset with the leadership of the church, by those who have betrayed their trust by acting out sexually with children and young adults. And with bishops like myself who did reassign priests after an offense."

Q: Parishioners say they're worried about your health. You've lost 25 pounds. How are you?

A: "I'm not the victim here. The victims are those that were abused by our clergy. I'm a priest and I'm concerned about the well-being of others. That's why I became a priest. And so to see so many people in pain has taken its toll on me personally. I see the pain in the victims. I see the pain in the innocent priests who have been tainted by the scandal. I see the pain of those who have been offenders and now have been removed from ministry. And I see the pain of our people -- the embarrassment, the shame, the anger and the outrage, the confusion. I tend to take that into myself, and it has taken somewhat of a personal toll.

"But as a leader in the community, I have responsibilities to try to develop policies and protocols that will ensure that this never happens again. And that's what I've been devoting so much of my energy to in the past year and a half." At the end of Chrism Mass, the congregation stands and gives Hubbard a round of applause.

"I pray for him all the time," said Kathleen Engel, who graduated from Cardinal McCloskey High School in the 1970s and has just heard about the suspension of former principal the Rev. John Connolly on sexual abuse charges. Connolly denies the claim.

"To see this makes it all worth it." As Engel speaks, parishioners stretch up the marble aisle, door to altar, to shake Hubbard's hand, to pat his arm or to say a few words.

Some who have trusted him with their souls now seem to want to share what is in their hearts.

"Thank you for the graces that you've given us as a result of this scandal," said Matt Manzella, 33, taking the bishop's hand.

"I can't tell you how much that means to me," Hubbard replied.

"He's been through so much," Manzella added later. "And he's still standing, for us all."


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