VATICAN CITY (AP) — The retired bishop of Albany, New York, who admitted to covering for predator priests and was himself 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 the United Nations designated as International Day for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence.
Hubbard said he wanted to become a layman or return to the lay state because he could no longer function as a priest, given US church policy that prohibits accused priests from officiating. If accepted, the popularization would release Hubbard from his celibacy obligations.
Asking the pope for voluntary papalization is unusual, especially for a bishop and especially for a cleric who denies abuse charges against him. Usually priests ask to be admitted if the evidence of abuse against them is overwhelming or if they want to leave the priesthood to marry. The Vatican can forcibly depose priests or excommunicate them as punishment for crimes such as sexual abuse of clergy.
Hubbard has acknowledged 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 deposition for one of dozens of claims by hundreds of people who have sued the Diocese of Albany of sexual abuse they say they endured as childrensometimes decades ago.
However, he has categorically denied accusations that he abused minors. In his statement Friday, Hubbard repeated that claim of innocence.
“I hope and pray that I live long enough to see my name cleared once and for all,” he said.
Hubbard led the diocese in the capital city of New York from 1977 to 2014.
Other US bishops have called on Francis to resign over his mishandling of predator priests, but not to remove himself from the priesthood altogether. Francis in 2019 forcibly removed former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after a church investigation found he had sexually abused adults and children.
Advocates for abuse survivors hailed Hubbard’s request to leave the priesthood altogether as the culmination of victims’ efforts to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for abuse and a cover-up. While the US church has had a “one strike and you’re out” policy in place for two decades, it has spared bishops from sanctions.
Only in 2019 did the Vatican pass internal standards for investigating accused bishops, but these cases have been shrouded in secrecy without a full public accounting of who has been investigated or sanctioned, and it is left to individual dioceses or bishops’ conferences to release information.
“We believe that removing Hubbard is not only justified but necessary. This signals to survivors that their voices are being heard,” attorney Cynthia LaFave said in a statement issued by the Law Offices of Jeffrey Anderson, who has represented hundreds of abuse survivors across the US.