Retired Albany bishop admits returning accused priests to ministry without notifying law enforcement

Retired Albany bishop admits returning accused priests to ministry without notifying law enforcement

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany / Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Washington D.C., Aug 1, 2021 / 09:01 am (CNA).

The bishop emeritus of Albany says that the diocese once handled allegations of sexual abuse against priests without notifying law enforcement, returning accused priests to ministry following treatment.

In a statement provided to the Albany Times-Union and reported on Saturday, the Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard of Albany said that as a practice in the 1970s and 1980s, the diocese would handle abuse allegations against priests by sending them to counseling and treatment rather than notifying law enforcement.

Priests with allegations would be returned to ministry upon the approval of a “licensed psychologist or psychiatrist,” Hubbard said.

“When an allegation of sexual misconduct against a priest was received in the 1970s and 1980s, the common practice in the Albany diocese and elsewhere was to remove the priest from ministry temporarily and send him for counseling and treatment,” Hubbard said, reported in the Times-Union.

“Only when a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist determined the priest was capable of returning to ministry without reoffending did we consider placing the priest back in ministry,” he added. “The professional advice we received was well-intended but flawed, and I deeply regret that we followed it.”

Bishop Hubbard led the diocese from 1977 until 2014, when he was succeeded by current Bishop Edward Scharfenberger. Hubbard currently faces a Vos Estis investigation, a Vatican-ordered investigation into allegations that he committed sexual abuse. The 2019 document Vos Estis lux Mundi contained Pope Francis’ norms for investigating allegations of episcopal misconduct.

An anonymous plaintiff in March filed a lawsuit against Hubbard, alleging that Hubbard molested him in 1977, soon after his installation as bishop. The lawsuit named the diocese as well as St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Clifton Park, New York.

The diocesan communications director told CNA at the time of the lawsuit that Hubbard maintained he had never abused a child.

Hubbard’s statement to the Times-Union came in response to an investigation by the newspaper, which reported a pattern of priests with abuse allegations being removed from ministry for treatment, only to be reinstated to active ministry without law enforcement being notified. Some of those priests allegedly went on to commit abuse once back in active ministry.

In one case, a woman testified in a deposition before diocesan attorneys that her nephew had been abused by a priest of the diocese around 1983. Her nephew killed himself, she recalled, and she subsequently contacted the diocese and reached Bishop Hubbard. The bishop allegedly told her he was aware of the alleged abuse, and that the priest in question was “being sent to New Mexico where they have more respect for priests.” 

In 2019, New York’s Child Victims Act went into effect, creating a temporary time window for new civil lawsuits to be filed in old cases of child sex abuse when the statute of limitations had already expired. The time window expires on Aug. 14, 2021.

So far, several New York dioceses have been named in hundreds of abuse lawsuits; according to a tally by a private law firm, the Albany diocese had been named in 266 lawsuits under the act as of April.

Hubbard himself has been named in several lawsuits under the act, including one which accused him of sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy in the 1990s.

The diocese on Friday also released a statement regarding abuse accusations under the Child Victims Act that were made against a retired priest of the diocese.

“In light of allegations of sexual abuse that were first reported in a Child Victims Act (CVA) case, Father John ‘Jack’ Varno, a retired priest in the Diocese of Albany who serves as a sacramental minister in several parishes, has voluntarily withdrawn from public ministry while the case moves forward,” the diocese stated on July 30.

“While on leave, Father Varno will not publicly officiate at sacraments, wear clerical garb, or present himself as a priest.”