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Spotlight Report

In Albany, sexual accusations raise a bishop's high profile

By Darryl McGrath, Globe Correspondent, 3/14/2004

ALBANY, N. Y. -- When Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany takes center stage at a news conference, it is usually to speak out on the death penalty, poverty, or some other issue of social justice.

For the past month, though, the bishop's news conferences have revolved around accusations that he is a closeted homosexual.

So far, the tale involves two suicides, a priest's recanted accusation against the bishop, and an assertion by a former male prostitute that Hubbard paid him for sex decades ago in an Albany park.

Hubbard has repeatedly denied that he has ever had any sexual relationship.

"I stand before you today with a clear conscience," said Hubbard, 64, when the first accusation surfaced in early February. "I am at peace with God and within myself, because there is absolutely no truth to the allegations which have been leveled against me."

Nevertheless, the Albany Diocese last month hired a former US attorney, Mary Jo White, known for her prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as an independent investigator. The diocese is paying White $770 an hour out of its self-insurance fund.

The turmoil surrounding Hubbard follows two fractious years for the Albany Diocese in which parishioners heard about a lengthy history of sexual abuse by priests. Settlements in abuse claims have cost the diocese more than $2.3 million. The diocese has reported that 19 priests committed sexual abuse in the past 53 years, and investigations are pending into allegations involving 10 current and former priests, two of whom are now dead.

Two years ago, the diocese removed six abusive priests from their sacramental duties. The reports that pedophile priests were still working in parishes where they had access to children shocked and infuriated many of the region's 400,000 Catholics.

Despite that turmoil, hundreds of people have rallied around Hubbard. Albany is a city of 90,000 people, largely conservative and heavily Roman Catholic, and Hubbard is respected for his ecumenical skills, his social activism, and his concern for the poor.

"He's lived what he's preached," said Michael Burgess, who started a campaign of purple lapel ribbons at his Albany parish to show support for Hubbard. "He's the saintliest man I've ever met in the way he's lived his life."

Hubbard was the nation's youngest bishop when he was elevated in 1977 at age 38, and was known in the 1970s as the city's "street priest" for his work in desperate neighborhoods.

Now, those early years of his priesthood form the backdrop of the accusations against him.

In early February, a California man named Andrew Zalay asserted that his brother, Thomas, had an affair with Hubbard in the mid- to late 1970s. Thomas Zalay committed suicide in 1978 at age 25, and Andrew Zalay reported finding Thomas's suicide notes while cleaning their late mother's home last summer.

In one of those notes, Andrew Zalay said, Thomas described an affair with Hubbard. Andrew Zalay is now represented by John Aretakis, a local attorney handling the claims of about 100 people who say they were sexually abused by priests in the Albany Diocese.

Andrew Zalay's accusation had barely surfaced when a local man, Anthony Bonneau, came forward to say that Hubbard had solicited sex from him when he was a teenage prostitute in Albany's Washington Park in the 1970s. Bonneau said he had come forward because he was outraged by Hubbard's assertions that he had never broken his vow of celibacy.

Neither the Zalay family nor Bonneau has taken legal action against Hubbard. The Albany County district attorney's office has declined to investigate the allegations, saying no one had filed a criminal complaint.

Then, on Feb. 15, the Rev. John Minkler, a priest in the Albany Diocese, was found dead in his home with prescription pills and a note near his body -- apparently a suicide. A few days earlier, Minkler had been named as the author of a 1995 letter to Cardinal John O'Connor in New York City, in which Minkler had accused Hubbard of homosexual acts and of failing to adhere to Catholic practices. Just before he died, however, Minkler signed a statement for the Albany Diocese denying that he had written the letter.

The accusations have led to clashes between supporters and critics. Last month, a conservative national organization known as Roman Catholic Faithful held a meeting in Albany to seek Hubbard's removal. The meeting dissolved into a shouting match between the group's members and Hubbard supporters.

When not responding to accusations against Hubbard, the diocese has emphasized the steps taken to address the broader sexual abuse scandal involving other priests. The diocese has appointed a retired judge from the Court of Appeals, New York's highest bench, to develop a program for abuse victims. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops also appointed Hubbard to a committee on sexual abuse in September 2002, after the conference adopted a zero-tolerance policy for abusive priests.

At the June 2002 meeting in Dallas at which that policy was adopted, Hubbard was the only bishop to speak against the zero-tolerance approach. He proposed an amendment that would have allowed for some discretion in dealing with abusive priests, but he voted for the zero-tolerance policy when that amendment did not pass, according to the diocese.

For now, Hubbard's supporters realize there may never be a resolution. Some have questioned how much White can accomplish, given that two of the three accusers against the bishop are dead and that the accusations of sexual misconduct by Hubbard date back nearly 30 years. Without criminal cases or lawsuits, supporters have only his promise that he has never broken his vow of celibacy. But for many, that promise is enough.

Harry Rosenfeld, editor-at-large of the Albany Times Union, made a plea on the bishop's behalf in a recent column that reflected much of the public sentiment.

"Until or unless a criminal or civil complaint is made [and so far no evidence has been produced to validate either], a fair-minded public would demonstrate solidarity with the bishop," Rosenfeld wrote. "He needs the support of people who recognize the depth of the unfairness of his situation."

David Kaczynski, executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, has worked closely with Hubbard -- who serves as president of the group's board -- for three years.

Kaczynski is the brother of convicted Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, and said Hubbard's plight reminds him of when he turned his brother over to authorities nearly 10 years ago. Kaczynski recalled how people who did not know him questioned his motives and speculated that he had been driven only by the reward money.

"He's an extraordinarily strong person," Kaczynski said of Hubbard. "I think the thing that has carried this place through is the bishop's clear and consistent statements that he is completely innocent. It's hard to imagine someone having the arrogance to deny these things if they were true."

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