VATICAN CITY (AP) — The retired bishop of Albany, New York, who has admitted covering up robbery priests and has himself been accused of sexual abuse, has asked Pope Francis to remove him from the priesthood.
Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard, 84, announced the decision in a statement on Friday, the day designated by the United Nations as World Day for the Prevention and Cure of Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence.
Hubbard said he wanted to be secularized, or return to the lay state, because he could no longer function as a priest, given US church policies that bar accused priests from ministering. If accepted, laicization would absolve Hubbard of his celibacy obligations.
Asking the pope for voluntary laicization is unusual, especially for a bishop and especially for a cleric who denies allegations of abuse against him. Usually, priests ask to be laicized if the evidence of abuse against them is overwhelming or if they want to leave the priesthood to get married. The Vatican can forcibly laicize or remove priests from office as punishment for crimes such as sexual abuse by clergy.
Hubbard has admitted to covering up allegations of child sexual abuse by priests, in part to avoid scandal and protect the diocese’s reputation. He did so in a statement for one of dozens of claims by hundreds of people suing the Diocese of Albany for sexual abuse they say they endured as children, some decades ago.
But he has strongly denied allegations that he himself abused minors. In his statement Friday, Hubbard reiterated that claim of innocence.
“I hope and pray that I will live long enough to clear my name once and for all,” he said.
Hubbard led the diocese in New York’s Capital District from 1977 to 2014.
Other American bishops have asked Francis to resign over their mistreatment of robber priests, but not be removed from the priesthood altogether. Francis forcibly removed ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from office in 2019 after a church investigation found he had sexually assaulted adults and children.
Advocates for abuse survivors hailed Hubbard’s request to leave the priesthood completely as the culmination of victims’ efforts to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for abuse and cover-ups. Although the American Church has had a “one strike and you’re out” policy for two decades, it has spared the bishops from sanctions.
Only in 2019 did the Vatican approve internal standards to investigate accused bishops, but those cases have been kept secret with no full public accountability of who has been investigated or sanctioned and it is left to individual dioceses or episcopal conferences to release information.
“We believe that Hubbard’s removal is not only justified but necessary. This signals to survivors that their voices are being heard,” attorney Cynthia LaFave said in a statement from the law firms of Jeffrey Anderson, who has represented hundreds of abuse survivors in the US.