A fellow ran down to the courthouse this week and got hitched, which, in itself, isn’t any sort of a headline. This groom, however, happens to be Howard Hubbard, the former Catholic bishop of Albany – the capital diocese in the U.S.State of New York – who is still a cleric and a bishop even in retirement, and that makes his nuptials more than a little news story.
That Hubbard got married even though the Vatican had told him “No,” after he asked to be released from the clerical state and be permitted to contract marriage … well, that makes this an even bigger news story.
The reason the Vatican denied Hubbard’s request is that Hubbard has admitted under oath to keeping abuse allegations against priests away from police and under wraps, and is currently facing no fewer than seven separate civil lawsuits alleging he personally abused people sexually both as a priest and as a bishop.
Hubbard denies the charges, and the Vatican – to hear Hubbard tell it, which he did in an August 1st letter to Albany’s Times Union newspaper – wanted him to wait at least until the lawsuits are cleared up before leaving the priesthood and getting married.
That could take years, six or seven at least, and Hubbard would be north of ninety by then, so he grew impatient – to hear him tell it – and so he went out and did what he did.
All of which makes this a giant news story.
It puts the Vatican between a rock and a hard place. Sure, the Congregation for Bishops – currently headed by an American, Archbishop (and soon-to-be Cardinal) Robert Prevost – could censure Hubbard short of defrocking him, but … not to put too fine a point on it … why would he or anyone else care?
Basically, it means the Vatican and Pope Francis must choose between the scandal of punishing a renegade bishop who has so far escaped serious consequences for his admitted coverup of abuse, and who now stands accused of abuse himself, and the scandal of tacitly condoning the clear disobedience of a guy who obviously conducted his office very poorly in some crucial regards, and is accused of doing worse.
That’s a tough spot to be in, but the Vatican and Pope Francis brought a good bit of this on themselves.
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 taken an expansive view of the legislation and applied it vigorously to investigate Hubbard.
Imagine if they’d used the law to do a thorough and proper criminal review of his time in office and then published a report worthy of the name?
They could have decided not to prosecute after doing the investigation and publishing the report, and still would have done great service to responsibility, accountability, and transparency – the threefold watchword that was the leitmotif of a 2019 child protection summit in the Vatican that preceded Vos estis.
In general, however, the Vatican has interpreted Vos estis narrowly and used the law sparingly.
There are reasons for restraint. “Creative application” of laws such as the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization statutes passed at both the federal and state levels many years ago have led to some unfortunate developments. Think of a candy store owner caught up in a RICO prosecution because he let neighborhood teens hang around his shop and some of them, at least, turned out to be members of a criminal gang doing business in the neighborhood.
Stranger things have happened, and worse, but we’re not talking about that here.
There are also reasonable concerns over retroactively applying criminal statutes. It leads by a short route to very bad places. If a fellow does something that isn’t a crime, it’s not cricket to make the thing he did a crime and then prosecute him as though it had been a crime to do the thing when he did it.
We’re not talking about that here, either.
We’re talking about using a tool as it was designed to be used: “[Vos estis] applies as from June 1, 2019, for the reporting and investigation of misconduct whenever [it] may have happened.” Archbishop Charles Scicluna – he’s the Church’s leading sex crimes investigator, and an architect of several significant reforms including Vos estis – said to the Catholic Herald when the Vatican announced the new law in May 2019.
It is, in other words, primarily a procedural law. The first major test of Vos estis was in the case of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Diocese of Crookston in Minnesota, who committed his alleged misdeeds in and around 2015 – several years before Vos estis was a thing.
It could be a powerful investigative tool and a real weapon in the fight to change leadership culture in the Church and repair the awful damage of a crisis that first erupted in scandal nearly forty years ago with the explosion of the Gilbert Gauthe case in Lafayette, La. and has since spread to every continent.
Is there a way out of this jam?
There’s nothing neat and tidy, but Pope Francis and the Vatican could use Hubbard’s disobedience as the justification for imposing peremptory suspension of rights and privileges but leaving him a cleric, and then immediately conducting not only an investigation of his admitted failures to report abuse allegations but also a thorough review of his whole Albany tenure.
They could publish the report and either make the suspension permanent, or try him and make it permanent, refusing dispensation for aggravating circumstances. Then, they could use his case as a model to go after other bad actors, past and present.
“May God bless you with more wisdom, strength, and guidance to put things right in the Church and for a better future,” was the prayer one young person offered for Pope Francis on Thursday at a World Youth Day event.
Hear, Lord, and answer.