Emeritus Bishop Joseph Hart has been credibly accused of sexually assaulting two boys after he became Bishop of Cheyenne in 1976, the Wyoming diocese has said, following an investigation of charges ordered by its current bishop.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our children. We have zero tolerance for sexual abuse of any kind,” Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne said July 2. “If there is ever any indication of abuse brought to our attention, it will be reported to the civil authorities and investigated thoroughly, even when the allegations involve a bishop.”
“I hope that our investigation will lead to a final determination by the (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that these sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Hart are credible and require disciplinary action.”
A cleric’s abuse of a minor is a crime under church law, and is so serious that accusations are handled by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Hart has denied all accusations of abusing minors.
Hart’s first accusers came forward in 1989, when he was alleged to have abused boys while serving as a priest in Kansas City. Ten individuals named Hart in lawsuits related to child sexual abuse claims dating from the 1970s. These accusations were part of settlements the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph reached in 2008 and 2014, though Bishop Hart denied the accusations, the Missouri diocese said July 2.
In 2002, a Wyoming man accused the bishop of sexually abusing him as a boy, both during sacramental confession and on outings. The alleged abuse took place after Hart had become a bishop. A second Wyoming man recently accused Hart of abusing him.
The district attorney of Casper, Wyo. in 2002 had put forward a report saying there was no evidence to support the allegations that originated in Wyoming.
“The Diocese of Cheyenne now questions that conclusion based upon a recently completed exhaustive investigation,” the Cheyenne diocese said July 2.
Bishop Hart had been ordained a priest for Missouri’s Diocese of Kansas City — St. Joseph in 1956, where he served until he was named an auxiliary bishop in Cheyenne in 1976, and appointed to lead the diocese two years later. He served as Bishop of Cheyenne until his resignation in 2001 at the age of 70, when he was succeeded by Bishop David Ricken, who now heads Wisconsin’s Diocese of Green Bay.
According to the Cheyenne diocese, Bishop Biegler had ordered a “fresh, thorough investigation” because the claims against Hart had not been resolved. In December 2017, the bishop retained an outside investigator who obtained “substantial new evidence” and who concluded the district attorney’s 2002 investigation was flawed. The investigator concluded that Bishop Hart had sexually abused two boys in Wyoming.
The diocesan review board, after reviewing the report, concurred with the investigator, finding the allegations “credible and substantiated.” The diocese reported the alleged abuse to the Cheyenne district attorney in March 2018, and Cheyenne police opened an investigation.
The diocese said it reported the allegations of abuse as required by its own policy, the national Catholic Church policy, and Wyoming law.
Now-Archbishop Paul Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, who was the Bishop of Cheyenne from 2009-2016, had restricted Bishop Hart from celebrating public liturgies in the diocese. Bishop Biegler, who learned of those restrictions in June 2017 when he was ordained the new Bishop of Cheyenne, kept them in place.
The Congregation for Bishops has extended the restrictions on Hart’s ministry to apply everywhere. Biegler has also decided to remove Hart’s name from a building at St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in Torrington, Wyo.
Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph addressed the claims on July 2.
“I want to assure those harmed by sexual abuse, especially by leaders in the Church, of our diocese’s commitment to create safe environments and accompany abuse survivors as they travel through the journey of healing,” he said.
The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese encouraged anyone harmed by Hart or any person who has worked or volunteered for the diocese to contact the diocese’s ombudsman. It also gave information on how to report suspicions of abuse to law enforcement authorities.
Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, told CNA there are “continued efforts” from the Church to uncover any misconduct.
While he would not address the specifics of the case of Cheyenne’s bishop emeritus, he said the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the Essential Norms are in place “to assist dioceses in dealing with allegations such as these.”
Nojadera pointed to the charter’s first article, which concerns outreach to victims or survivors of sexual abuse and their reconciliation and healing.
The charter’s fifth article, which aims to help guarantee an effective response to abuse allegations, outlines the process to follow once an allegation has been received. That section stresses that clergy sexual abuse is so severe that the Church’s response is handled by the CDF. The charter adds that sexual abuse of a minor is a crime in all U.S. civil jurisdictions.
During an investigation, accused clergy must have the presumption of innocence and all steps must be taken to preserve their reputation, the charter says.
If a single act of sexual abuse of a minor is admitted or established after an appropriate process, the offending cleric must be “permanently removed from ministry” and even dismissed from the clerical state, if warranted. Bishops of a diocese or eparchy must ensure that any priest or deacon under their governance be removed from ministry if he has committed sexual abuse.