By Mike Matvey, Catholic News Service

ALBANY, N.Y. (CNS) — Retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany has asked the Vatican that he be “returned to the lay state.”

The 84-year-old bishop announced in a Nov. 18 statement that he made the request, citing his age and that he is retired from active ministry. He also repeated his denial that he abused anyone.

The announcement came as Bishop Hubbard continues to face several lawsuits under New York’s Child Victims Act.

“I had hoped that in my retirement I might be able to continue to serve our community as a priest. 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,” said the bishop, who headed the diocese from 1977 to 2014.

“Despite the impact on me, I still believe this is a sound policy. I implemented it in the Albany Diocese and continue to support it as a necessary means to maintain and restore public confidence in our clergy,” he said. “In my particular case, the effect of the policy has been to deprive me of the single greatest joy of my life — serving our community as a Catholic priest in my retirement years.”

He added that he desired to continue “in whatever time I have left on this earth … to be able to serve God and the people of our community as a layperson.”

“I also will continue to vigorously defend myself against the allegations against me. Resolution of these civil cases takes a very long time. I hope and pray I will live long enough to see my name cleared once and for all,” the statement said.

The Albany Diocese offered prayers for Bishop Hubbard Nov. 19 as well as a correction as it relates to diocesan policy.

“We are aware of the various reports that have emerged regarding Bishop Howard Hubbard’s request to return to the lay state. Our prayers are with Bishop Hubbard for his well-being and with all who accompany him, that all decisions and actions are in accord with God’s plan,” the diocese said in a statement.

The diocese also offered prayers “for all impacted by this news” and called on the church to “stand together, pray together and walk together, in faith, believing that healing is possible.”

“The needs are many, from the abused, to those in our family of faith who are angry that this happened, also those who don’t understand, and to the abusers. As the body of Christ, we are called to pray for all,” the diocese said.

The diocesan statement also explained that “some reports” incorrectly stated that diocesan policy forbids a bishop accused of abuse to participate in sacramental ministry.

“A diocesan bishop may regulate, that is, limit, circumscribe or ban exercise within his diocese of any or all sacramental ministries,” the diocese said, noting that Albany Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger has taken such a step in some cases.

However, the diocese said, “in the case of Bishop Hubbard, it is he alone who voluntarily removed himself from any public celebration of sacraments.”

Bishop Hubbard, who was involved in a car accident July 19 in which it was determined that he suffered a stroke, has repeatedly denied that he abused anyone. In 2019, after he was named in a second lawsuit, he said that “I have never sexually abused anyone of any age at any time.”

In a court deposition that was reported by the Times Union daily in March, Bishop Hubbard was questioned by an attorney representing people who had filed claims of abuse against the Diocese of Albany under the state’s Child Victims Act.

Asked why he did not report a suspected case of child sexual abuse to law enforcement when he was bishop after a priest allegedly admitted to him that he had abused a child, Bishop Hubbard replied: “Because I was not a mandated reporter. I don’t think the law then or even now requires me to do it. Would I do it now? Yes. But did I do it then? No.”

In response to the news report, Bishop Scharfenberger wrote in a letter to parishioners, saying: “Each of us no doubt is reacting in different ways about revelations in the Times Union piece.”

He recognized there would be “a new wave of suffering for survivors and their families.”

“Yes, this will hurt as we move forward,” the letter said. “We all hurt to see the impact on our church and on our people, on survivors and families, on the relationships we may have with Bishop Hubbard.”

Bishop Scharfenberger invited people to take time to pray and grieve and to not “take this on alone.”

“Remember how often Jesus himself did this and invited his apostles to join him. All Catholics are upset,” he said. “But it is much better that we can express our anger or grief than that we walk away. This is how families heal.”

Under canon law, any request for laicization by a member of the clergy or a recommendation by a Vatican official after an appropriate review must be approved by the pope.

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Matvey is editor of The Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany.