Peter Young, priest who lifted up the downtrodden, dies at 90

Enterprise file photo — Saranac Hale Spencer

When Father Young began working in Albany’s South End in the 1950s, alcoholism was a criminalized behavior. Martha Holesapple, who had been arrested for public drunkenness 238 times, spurred him to act. “The biggest thing I did was de-stigmatize,” Young told The Enterprise in 2006.  “I de-stigmatized addiction.”  

ALTAMONT — Father Peter Young, a man ahead of his time, who changed the way lawmakers and everyday people saw addiction, and whose work would ultimately help thousands, died on Wednesday, Dec. 9. He was 90.

When Father Young, a Catholic priest, began his work in Albany’s South End in the 1950s, addiction, specifically alcoholism, was still a criminalized behavior. 

Martha Holesapple spurred him to act; she had been arrested for public drunkenness 238 times. “The biggest thing I did was de-stigmatize,” Young told The Enterprise many years ago.  “I de-stigmatized addiction.”  

At first, he said, the politicians saw his priest’s collar and dismissed him as just another do-gooder but, after presenting them with the cost of incarceration, he got some attention and support.

“I proved it was cost-effective,” Young said in 2008. “That’s how I got credibility,” and, eventually, “after years of work, Young won support for decriminalizing alcoholism,” The Enterprise editorialized in 2012. That’s what enabled people to get help: When they no longer had to admit to being a criminal to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, Young said.

Father Young “spawned a movement,” The Enterprise wrote in a 2014 editorial. “He changed the way lawmakers and the public look at alcoholics and drug addicts. With this perception came help, real help, to set people on the course to productive lives.”

In the 1980s, Father Young was ahead of the state in setting up an Honor Court program to offer non-violent offenders who had committed alcohol- or drug-related crimes an opportunity to go to drug treatment instead of jail. 

Father Young would go on to run 121 not-for-profit addiction treatment and rehabilitation programs that treated more than 18,000 people each day.

But he was ahead in another important way, too. 

When people with addictions would emerge from a program like Young’s, or after convicts served their time, they can often end up where they started — on drugs or in jail. 

Young had programs for that as well. Beyond treatment, he said, people needed housing and employment to recover. “His resounding call was to create taxpayers,” The Enterprise editorialized in 2009. “We take this to mean functioning members of society, citizens who contribute.

Also in 2009, the paper profiled a graduate of Young’s Honor Court program. Brian Hussey had spent 20 of his 25 years addicted to drugs — both of his parents were heroin addicts, Hussey said.

Before sinking further — to prison, serious criminal behavior, or homelessness — Hussey, up on drunk-driving charges, got caught in the web of help that Young had spun for over half of a century. 

He spent four months learning a trade in one of Young’s programs.

On graduation day, Hussey said his overall goal was “anything I can give back to Father Young. He got me clean after 20 years of use and now I have a future.”

“Hussey is one of thousands of New Yorkers who, before sinking further — to prison, serious criminal behavior, or homelessness — got caught in the web of help that Father Peter Young has spun in the last half a century,” The Enterprise wrote in a 2014 editorial.

Programs like Young’s broke a vicious cycle. 

Often a person with an addiction or someone who had spent too much of  life behind bars, had no model for fitting into society. 

“Programs like Father Young’s give people a job, a ticket to society, but also a sense of purpose and belonging,” said  a 2009 Enterprise editorial. “That’s important for all of us, not just because they’ll pay taxes and won’t cost us as much in prison fees. We need to support such programs because, quite simply, they make our society better and our future richer.”

But sadly, Father Young’s life’s work was met with an ignominious ending not of his own making. 

After Young’s organization self-reported an internal theft, a far-reaching multi-year investigation was launched by the now-disgraced former Attorney General of New York State, Eric Schneiderman, who resigned in May 2018, three hours after The New Yorker published a story where Schneiderman was accused by four women of physical abuse. 

Young was forced, in March 2014, to close the rehab center, perched on the hill above the village of Altamont that bears his name.

In August 2015, the former chief operating officer of Peter Young Housing, Industries, and Treatment pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree offering a false instrument for filing, a misdemeanor. Father Young was not implicated but the charges affected funding for his programs.

Following his death, statements from politicians at the county, state, and national level spoke of their personal connections to Father Young and the good he had done.

“Father Young and his programs have been a major part of the community in Altamont since the early 1980s,” wrote Albany County Legislator Jeff Perlee. “My family was blessed to call Father Young a friend for several decades. We will miss him greatly but I am confident that the programs he inspired are in good hands and will continue transforming lives and honoring his memory for many years.”

New York State Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy called his death “heartbreaking news.” She wrote in an Instagram post, “Fr. Young was a legend and one of my true, true heroes in life. He wrote a book on addiction and taught us all how to treat those with substance abuse disorders — as human beings first.”

“Our Capital Region has lost a beloved soul, a humble leader and an unwavering warrior for those most in need,” wrote congressman Paul Tonko, who said it was a “deep honor and joy” to work with Father Young both as an assemblyman and congressman. He wrote, “Even in his final weeks and months, he never lost his drive to fight for others with his unique and resounding faith and love.”

“In his lifetime, Young has taken groups that are reviled and found ways to bless them. First, with alcoholics, he raised the public’s consciousness so they could be understood not as criminals to be punished but, rather, as those suffering from an illness who needed help,” said an April 2014 Enterprise editorial. “He went on to do the same with a more reviled group, drug addicts, and then was working with the most reviled group, sex offenders.”

Father Peter Young “was in the business of giving people hope.”

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