A retired Catholic bishop with seven civil sexual abuse complaints pending against him in New York has married a woman in a civil ceremony in the state, after the Vatican told him to wait until the lawsuits are resolved.

The move puts the Vatican in a difficult position, and shines a light on both structural weaknesses of the Vatican’s recently adopted system for handling abuse and coverup claims against senior clerics and Pope Francis’s  approach to wayward clerics.

84-year-old Bishop Howard Hubbard, who led New York’s capital diocese of Albany from 1977 until 2014, denies the abuse allegations. He has admitted, however, to keeping accusations of abuse by priests carefully under wraps when he had the leadership of the Albany diocese.

In a 2022 deposition related to claims that arose under New York’s Child Victims Act – a “look-back window” law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on civil and criminal abuse claims – Hubbard said he decided not to report allegations to police because he felt he wasn’t required by law to do so, and kept them secret in order to avoid “scandal” and owing to his sense of “respect for the priesthood.”

Under Pope Francis’s 2019 Vos estis lux mundi – on paper, a sweeping reform giving broad powers to investigate both abuse and coverup and streamlining the legal process of prosecuting such and similar crimes under church law – the Vatican could have applied it to sanction Hubbard. In general, however, the Vatican has used the law sparingly.

When the lookback window opened in 2022, protocol dictated that Hubbard cease to function or present himself as a cleric. It was in the fall of 2022, after he was effectively suspended pending the resolution of the civil claims, that Hubbard petitioned the Vatican for voluntary laicization. The Vatican told him to wait until the civil matters all played out.

Hubbard grew impatient.

“I have fallen in love with a wonderful woman who has helped and cared for me and who believes in me,” Hubbard said in a statement, calling the woman “a loving and supportive companion on this journey,” and noting that he “could be 91 or 92” before the lawsuits are resolved.

Albany’s current bishop, Edward Scharfenberger, called the news of Hubbard’s civil nuptials “unexpected” and said he is “just beginning to process it.”

“The Church does not recognize [Hubbard’s] current marriage as valid,” Scharfenberger also stated in a letter to the diocese.

The Diocese of Albany filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, in the wake of hundreds of abuse lawsuits brought when New York’s lookback window opened. That window has since closed, but it was already clear to Scharfenberger that the diocese no longer has “the resources to settle any more.”

To date, there has been no comment from the Vatican on the Hubbard case, although he could be subject to disciplinary action for marrying without being released from his vows. The Vatican’s current head of the Dicastery for Bishops, the department which presumably would handle the case, is an American, Cardinal-designate Robert Prevost.