Exonerated and Rebuked

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by David Nussman  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 27, 2021   

Vatican mixes message on abuse case

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The Vatican is giving a muddled ruling on a sex abuse case.

Wyoming bishop Joseph Hart was accused of abusing at least 12 underage victims decades ago — 11 male and one female.

In the new decision, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith determined Hart is cleared of seven claims — deeming them unsubstantiated — while the other five are plausible but don't have enough evidence to convict beyond reasonable doubt.

The Congregation rebuked Hart for a "flagrant lack of prudence" in being alone with minors — essentially a slap on the wrist.

He remains barred from contact with minors and from celebrating liturgy publicly — disciplines already in effect for about two years.

In 2018 the diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming began investigating the claims against Hart, who had been bishop of Cheyenne for more than 20 years before retiring in 2001.

After investigating, the Cheyenne diocese believed it had ample evidence to say some of the allegations were credible and sent the case to Rome for a final ruling.

Hart's successor, Cheyenne bishop Steven Biegler, seemed disappointed with the Vatican's new ruling, noting it "will not bring closure to the survivors."

Two other alleged victims were ages 16 and 17 at the time of the abuse, but Church officials said they don't technically count as minors under canon law.

Some abuse claims go as far back as the 1960s, when Hart was a priest in Missouri.

Alleged victims say Hart gave them treats and paid them handsome sums for doing chores on church grounds — but it was all part of a grooming process. Some claim he gave them alcohol or showed them pornography as part of the grooming. 

They say Hart abused them in church buildings or while taking them on trips, or even in the confessional.

Critics say this is still more evidence the Church needs to reform how it handles claims against bishops.

Anne Barrett Doyle of watchdog site BishopAccountability.org told the Associated Press, "for every McCarrick there are five Harts — bishops who retain their titles and pensions in the face of multiple allegations."

Those who believe Hart is guilty feel this ruling from the Vatican is just the latest case of justice gone missing.

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