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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A retired Wyoming bishop will face trial at the Vatican for allegedly sexually abusing minors.
On Wednesday, Cheyenne Bp. Steven Biegler announced that the case of Bp. Emeritus Joseph Hart, head of the diocese from 1978–2001, is heading to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for adjudication.
The announcement follows the end of a two-year inquiry, launched by Biegler after his 2017 consecration as bishop of Cheyenne, which deemed allegations against Hart as credible.
Hailing from Missouri, Hart was ordained a priest for the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1956. Over the next two decades, he served at five Kansas City-area parishes and as vice chancellor for the diocese.
Reportedly, Hart was assaulting adolescent boys as early as 1963. He's been accused of three instances of abuse dating from the 1960s through the early 1970s. According to Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles, Hart assaulted young men between 1972 and 1976 while on road trips from Missouri to Wyoming.
Allegations of abuse were first reported to Kansas City diocesan officials in 1989. After additional accusations surfaced in 1992, Hart volunteered to undergo a month-long psychiatric evaluation. The analysis determined that "Bishop Hart does not appear to be a threat to himself or others on any level," and he quietly returned to his duties in Wyoming.
The 1989 and 1992 allegations were not publicly revealed until 2002, after another accuser stepped forward alleging he was abused by Hart — then auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne — in 1977.
After an investigation, Wyoming justice officials cleared Hart of wrongdoing, saying they uncovered "no evidence to support the allegations."
But his multiple accusers pressed on. Ten individuals filed lawsuits against the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, alleging that by the late 1970s, officials there were aware of Hart's history of abuse, but said nothing as he assumed positions of leadership in Cheyenne.
In total, between 2008 and 2014, Kansas City-St. Joseph settled at least half a dozen lawsuits related to Hart. But in announcing the payouts, the diocese didn't mention the names of credibly accused clergy, including Hart.
Biegler's first act as bishop of Cheyenne was to reopen the case against his predecessor, noting there were "there no trials, no determination of guilt or innocence (and) the matter was not resolved," the diocese said.
In December 2017, Biegler hired an independent investigator "who obtained substantial new evidence and concluded that the District Attorney's 2002 investigation was flawed and that Bishop Hart sexually abused two boys in Wyoming," according to the diocese.
At the same time, the Cheyenne Police Department launched an investigation into allegations of abuse.
In 2018, investigators announced that allegations against Hart were, in fact, credible and that the 2002 inquiry into the bishop's conduct was faulty.
Bishop Biegler has said he hopes the findings will lead to a final determination by the Vatican "that these sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Hart are credible and require disciplinary action."
Results of the investigation have been sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Bishops as well as Abp. Samuel Aquila, head of the Denver metropolitan see to which the diocese of Cheyenne belongs.
For his part, Hart continues to deny any wrongdoing. Should he be criminally charged by secular authorities, it would mark the first time in U.S. history that a bishop is called to account for sexual abuse.