Retired Wyoming bishop Joseph Hart has been cleared by the Vatican after an 18-month investigation on seven accusations of sexual abuse.
Five more accusations were “not proven with moral certitude,” according to a press release from the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne. Two more were not considered because the alleged victims were over age 16. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the branch of the Vatican that handles such investigations, examined allegations from 11 men and one woman.
“These findings do not equate to innocence; rather, a high burden of proof has not been met,” the Diocese of Cheyenne stated in a Monday afternoon news release.
A bishop and two priests, experts in canonical law, conducted the investigation. Though Hart was exonerated on the abuse accusations, he was rebuked by the Vatican “for his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips, which could have been potential occasions for endangering the ‘obligation to observe continence’ and that would ‘give rise to scandal among the faithful.’”
He was also rebuked “for his disregard of the urgent requests that he refrain from public engagements that would cause scandal among the faithful due to the numerous accusations against him and the civil and canonical investigations and processes being conducted in his regard.”
Hart remains restricted by the church from contacting “minors, youth, seminarians and vulnerable adults.” He also cannot publicly participate in church events or celebrations.
A Wyoming man who’s the central victim and witness in the various investigations into Hart said he wasn't surprised by the Vatican’s decisions.
“There’s a pattern, there’s clearly a pattern, and it extends for decades,” he said, referring to Hart’s time as a priest in Kansas City before he moved to Wyoming. ”There’s a dozen or two dozen in Kansas City before he got to Wyoming. The idea that the pattern and the prior bad acts and the whole Kansas City thing — why was that not sufficient?”
He, like others involved, said he wanted Hart defrocked, more than they wanted him arrested.
“The only thing that would’ve mattered, it would’ve mattered in my calculus of the world, is to strip him of the priesthood. Then Biegler would not have to continue to treat him as a fellow bishop, including his funeral,” he said. Hart is 89 and in poor health.
“Today, I wanted the survivors to know that I support and believe you,” current Wyoming Bishop Steven Biegler said in a statement. “I understand that this announcement will not bring closure to the survivors, their family members, Bishop Hart and all those affected. I will continue to work and pray for their healing and for all involved in these painful and distressing matters.”
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Denver referred questions to Cheyenne.
For years, Hart has consistently denied all allegations against him. In June, his lawyer told a reporter that Hart was in failing health. A message sent Monday afternoon to his attorney was not immediately returned.
Hart has twice been investigated by criminal authorities in Cheyenne and this is at least the second investigation into him by the Vatican.
In a statement, Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City said that the Hart investigation had “been a long and often difficult process, especially for the survivors and their families who bravely shared their stories.”
Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney who has represented Hart’s victims in court there, said the announcement makes the “decades of promised reform ring hollow.”
“How many children over how many decades, separated by geography and time, does the church need to find moral certitude that a bishop is a predator?” she said.
“The fact that the congregation gave a canonical rebuke, that’s not justice. And those who have the power to push for justice in this life, not just in the life beyond.”
She added that the church “is making the assumption that all of these people independently came up with similar stories against Bishop Hart.” The decision “sends the message, don’t bother to come forward. No one’s going to believe you,” Randles said.
David Clohessy, a Missouri-based official with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he wasn’t surprised that the Vatican had exonerated Hart. The decision will make “make it harder for victims to come forward, which is why officials, both secular and church, must redouble their efforts.”
”Vatican officials often play bad cop to a bishop’s good cop,” he said, referring to Biegler. “Bishops have asked to defrock or discipline predators and Vatican officials refuse. The hierarchy gets to have its cake and eat it, too.”
When one victim came forward in the early 1990s, church officials and lawyers accused him of lying and seeking a payout.
Another family, the Hunters, who had multiple members allegedly abused, came forward after they said they saw Hart at a party with an adolescent boy. When they first met with the church, the first question they said they were asked was what they wanted, apparently referring to a payout.
All three Hunter brothers were inappropriately touched or assaulted by Hart, the family has said. Darrel Hunter, the sole living brother, said Monday that he wasn’t surprised by the news.
“When somebody drags their feet the way they have, they really didn’t want to do anything,” he said. “This guy’s a bishop, and it’s a sad thing.”
”This type of arrogance and evil is hard to fix,” he added. “And I don’t think it’s going to be.”
Even as the church in Kansas City, where Hart worked for 20 years before moving to Wyoming, began paying victims of Hart and others, the church didn't bar him from celebrate Mass until recently. A church investigation several years ago apparently went nowhere, and the two bishops that followed Hart in Wyoming didn't launch their own inquiry.
Hart spent some time at an alcohol treatment center in the early 1990s while bishop, during which he was supposedly examined and deemed not a threat; victims in Kansas City had begun to come forward at that point.
In late 2017, Biegler quietly started an internal review of the aged clergyman. The review lasted more than seven months, concluding in July 2018 when the diocese announced it had substantiated two allegations against Hart and that they considered him to be an abuser.
That number has since grown to six Wyoming victims, plus several more in Kansas City. All of those victims have been deemed credible by the church.
Biegler then requested an investigation by church authorities at the Vatican, which lasted for 18 months, its sluggish pace frustrating victims and their families. The two bishops between Biegler, David Ricken and Paul Etienne, have both said they didn’t investigate Hart themselves because the central victim had not cooperated with police. That central victim said no church official approached them until Biegler launched his own inquiry.
The Vatican’s decision to not to defrock Hart closes one door that victims hoped could hold the retired bishop accountable for his alleged misconduct. The other remaining option lies with law enforcement in Wyoming, which has no state statute of limitations. Cheyenne police have twice investigated Hart. The first came in spring 2002, shortly after he retired. The investigation ended swiftly because the victim declined to cooperate with a police investigator whom the victim described as accusatory and difficult.
Cheyenne police opened a fresh investigation into Hart in April 2018, after the diocese referred allegations to the agency. Police investigated for 16 months before recommending that Hart be charged. They then handed the case to a special prosecutor in Casper, Wyoming’s second-largest city.
That prosecutor, Dan Itzen, had the case for 10 months. In June, a few hours after a local media story questioned the status of the investigation, Itzen’s office called one victim and told him Hart wouldn’t be charged.
Cheyenne police, who felt the case was strong, objected and held a meeting with prosecutors. At that sit-down, police discovered that the prosecutors hadn’t fully read some of the investigative documents.
Ultimately, prosecutors still decided against charging Hart.
Hart began his time as a priest in his hometown of Kansas City in 1956. He worked in the archdiocese there until 1976, when he became auxiliary bishop in Cheyenne. He then became full bishop in 1978, a position he held until he retired in 2001.
The earliest alleged abuse began in the 1960s, victims have previously said. In addition to his own alleged abuse, Hart also was linked to a pair of other alleged abusers in Kansas City. The three frequented a lake house in Missouri where they allegedly plied boys with alcohol before abusing them.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has settled several civil lawsuits brought against Hart, the two other priests and other abusers, as well as church officials accused of covering up the molestation.
Hart had a pattern of alleged abuse, investigative documents and victims allege. He often ingratiated himself into families, so much so that he was known to walk into family homes unannounced for dinner.
The Hunters had a picture of him on their wall. Family members were often reliant on the church; the central victim in Wyoming has said his father left and the family depended on the church.
He kept his fridge stalked with soda and candy, victims have said, and he allegedly abused at least one victim during a confession. At least two of his alleged victims worked around Hart’s residence. Other victims were abused on trips in the West, a victim and a Kansas City attorney have said.
Hart denies all of these allegations.
Had he been expelled from the priesthood, Hart would’ve joined other Catholic clerics, most notably disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Hart has lived in a diocese-owned home in Cheyenne since his retirement.